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

Monday, June 11, 2012

Brian Azzarello writes dystopian takes on the DC Comics universe. From his villain-hero stories Luthor and Joker or to those like Flashpoint: Batman: Knight of Vengeance, Azzarello's stories show the harsher side of the DC Universe -- grotesque villains and overwhelmed heroes with bitter pasts.

In the DC New 52's Wonder Woman: Blood, artist Cliff Chiang does his best impression of Azzarello's often-gritty collaborator Eduardo Risso for a decidedly darker Wonder Woman tale. The story here is not so groundbreaking -- Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka pitted Amazon princess Diana against human-formed gods; Gail Simone fomented strife between Diana and the Amazons themselves -- as is the way the story is told; readers have never seen Wonder Woman's world so bleak, for better or worse, than they do here.

[Review contains spoilers]

"The reader doesn't need to know that much about Wonder Woman," says the New York Times in Wonder Woman: Blood's cover credits. Indeed, Azzarello does perhaps the best job so far of the DC New 52 books in making any prior Wonder Woman knowledge optional, while still making Blood a story about Wonder Woman. The book begins simply -- she's Wonder Woman, she lives in London, move on -- but the third issue quickly recaps Diana's origins and then pivots to change them entirely, all while avoiding the continuity stickiness often inherit in other comics.

Azzarello's revelation that Diana is actually the daughter of Zeus is designed to shock, and in this way emerges as the least shocking part of the book. That Diana is born of flesh and not clay largely changes the character not a bit, given that writers have long struggled with what Diana's clay origins meant anyway -- Gail Simone, for one, was quick to affirm that Diana has a soul despite not being "human."

But what Azzarello does, which neither Greg Rucka nor Simone did to this extent, is to delve immediately and messily into the sexual politics of Wonder Woman and the Amazons. The Amazons are quick to speak their disgust when the god Hermes brings his "male parts" on to Paradise Island, and Diana's new "non-immaculate" conception is less a scandal for Diana than it is for her mother Hippolyta, causing some Amazons to even suggest revolt. Blood turns on Hippolyta giving in to her passion for Zeus, versus the human woman Zola also seduced and impregnated by Zeus, and the spurned goddess Hera taking revenge on all the women who participated in her husband's trysts.

As Azzarello imagines the Amazon society, sex is acquiescence here, and shame, the great divide between paradise and Man's World. Whereas in Simone's recent Wonder Woman run, Hippolyta was joyful at the idea of her daughter marrying and raising children and the Amazons themselves wanted babies (immaculate or otherwise), Azzarello's story hews to a more traditional and severe presentation of the Amazons, in which congress with men seems anathema.

Indeed, there's much about Azzarello's presentation of Wonder Woman's world that seems severe. Whereas J. Michael Straczynski's Wonder Woman: Odyssey just ended with hugs all around on Paradise Island and Hippolyta brushing Diana's hair, Azzarello's story has Diana bowing in fealty to her mother, and facing challenge if not outright revolt from her fellow Amazons. Azzarello reveals that Diana left Paradise Island for Man's World not on a quest for great adventure, but because she never fit in with her fellow Amazons, who called her (mistakenly, we know now) "Clay." (This mirrors the subtle dark turn Azzarello gives Bruce Wayne's origins, too, in Batman: Broken City.)

Even at their most warlike, the Amazons have never been portrayed as "mean" in the way that Azzarello does, not has Paradise Island ever been so uninviting. Azzarello strips some of the majesty from Wonder Woman's origins, and in that way perhaps makes the character more approachable -- to illustrate, Azzarello takes Diana from Paradise Island to drinking in a heavy-metal club. The net result may be successful, but it can't make long-time fans happy to see favored characters brought low even if to rejuvenate Diana herself.

Azzarello's story in Blood again doesn't largely reinvent the contents of a Wonder Woman tale. Azzarello uses gods in modern getup as Rucka did, though renames those like Eris to "Strife" and Apollo to "Sun" (thankfully Azzarello sets aside overused Wonder Woman foe Ares, at least for the moment). Azzarello's focus on Diana's stalwart protection of just one person, Zola, helps define Diana's character, though this, too, has shades of Rucka's Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia.

The stronger issues of this book are in the first half, where Cliff Chiang illustrates Diana's battle against monsters, her return to Paradise Island, and the revelation of her origins. The story moves quicker when artist Tony Akins comes on, however, with a more cartoony style and larger-paneled fight scenes that deliver less content overall. Diana takes on a kind of caper to trick Hera; as admirable as it is that Azzarello doesn't spell out every detail for the reader, it takes some starting at Atkins final pages to get the gist.

Further, a new character Lennox literally walks up to Diana off the street and immediately joins her "team." One might almost think Lennox is meant to be a certain Dark Knight in disguise, so quickly does Diana trust him (and so over-the-top is Lennox's accent and the bumbling manner in which Azzarello portrays him). Perhaps Azzarello's Wonder Woman will continue to be populated by "god children" arriving from the ether, but this first introduction felt flat alongside the additional change in artists.

The DC New 52 is meant to be different, and Brian Azzarello's take on one of DC's Big Three characters in Wonder Woman: Blood is definitely different. Azzarello's Diana is self-assured, capable, and funny, and closer to accessible than her portrayals as diplomat or super-spy previously. Unfortunately, what Azzarello's Wonder Woman loses in the process is a bit of her majesty and the general optimism of her origins; whether that's a worthy trade-off remains to be seen.

[Includes original covers and Cliff Chiang sketchbook pages]

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9 comments:

  1. I just wanted to say "Congratulations"! The Collected Edition website has hit a big milestone. What milestone is that you say?

    Wonder Woman “Down to Earth” was the first trade you ever reviewed for the website, back in February 2005 “Wow”! All the reviews you have done for Wonder Woman would encompass about eight and a half years of continuous storylines taking readers from the “Down to Earth” trade to the New 52 Vol. 1 “Blood” trade. If the DC Comics TPB Timeline is the “heart” of the website, then you could say that Wonder Woman has become the “spine” of this amazing collection of reviews/posts that has become the Collected Edition website (it has to be like 700+ posts by now, I think). Princess Diana has been written by the likes of Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, J. Michael Straczynski and now Brian Azzarello. It’s an interesting retrospective on just one character in this huge DC Universe, huh?

    Thank you sincerely, for all time and hard work that you have personally put into writing every review (and to all your guest reviewers as well) for this site. You are appreciated CE; “lifts a glass” here’s to all the great history!

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  2. I felt the last two issues that wasn't drawn by Cliff Chiang to be the ones I like the least.

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  3. @Ryan - What a nice and unexpected comment; thank you so much.

    As I've started to read the DC New 52, I've been marveling as you have at the long history of these characters and their many interpretations over the years. I wouldn't consider myself a diehard Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, or Catwoman fan, but I'm reminded as some of these new versions come along of some of the "definitive" runs (to me) of these characters for which I did feel very enthusiastic, many from the earliest days of this site -- Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman, Judd Winick's Green Arrow, and Ed Brubaker's Catwoman, to name a few. That's no slight against the DC New 52 -- I continue to ponder whether Azzarello's Wonder Woman is great for the character or destructive, but the fact that it's sticking with me is itself good -- only that I've had these characters' long histories in mind, too. Few other stories have gone on this long or been this nuanced as these comics universes, and I think that's important, no doubt.

    Let me turn it around and say thank *you* for speaking up (and for giving a well-deserved plug to the guest reviewers!). I write the posts, but you still make the decision to take time out of your busy day to stop and read and leave a comment, and I read and appreciate every one. This wouldn't be half as much fun without you all chiming in. Thanks!

    @Jackie - Ditto. It made the end feel rushed or "light"; granted it's a fight scene, but it seemed to lack content. I'll pick up the next volume, but they'll do well to keep Chiang around; this is one of those books where the writer and artist are selling it together, not one or the other.

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  4. I've been dabbling a bit in the New 52, mostly holding off my reading until I finish my old DCU trades (really just Brightest Day/War of the Green Lanterns/Flashpoint left for me), but from what I have read, I find it easier to get into a character who I'm not as familiar with, at least when dealing with origin changes and/or abandonment of their previous history.

    - I didn't care for the new Green Arrow.
    - I didn't care for the new Captain Atom.
    - I liked the new Resurrection Man (not familiar with the first; I know this one's origin is different, but the character itself might be largely the same).
    - I enjoyed the new Justice League, even with their new origin, but maybe because the characters still felt familiar.

    Just a few examples off the top of my head. Most of my reading is Green Lantern/Flash/Justice League/bit of Batman, which I guess hasn't undergone too drastic of changes...yes, Barry Allen is younger and unmarried now, but he was younger and unmarried when his original series started anyway! It doesn't necessarily change the type of character he is.

    I've never been a big Wonder Woman fan, as the whole god mythology stuff isn't that appealing to me. I read the first issue of the new series and thought it was decent enough, but not so great that I felt I had to keep buying it. So I'm okay with Diana being different, and am interested to see how that plays out in the Justice League book.

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  5. I only had a problem with Akins' artwork in the last sequence of issue #6. Like CE implied, Azzarello may have put too much trust in his storytelling skills, and I wonder if Chiang could have presented Wonder Woman's actions more clearly if he had pencilled that issue.

    While I'm not enjoying Azzarello's take on Wonder Woman as much as Rucka's, to me it's a significant step up over anything done with the character since Infinite Crisis ended. It's constantly surprising and eventful,and thankfully Azzarello seems to be on it for the long haul.

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  6. I see this WW as more comparable to Honer's The Odyssey. It's supposed to be about Diana being a loose main character, while she explore the wonders of the world. It's about the journey and characters around Diana that purposely take emphasis away from Diana. (and since I'm reading the singles, my theory is supported by the fact where Diana goes next in the following trade).

    And Chiangs art is meant to represent art similar to the greek art found on bowls and walls. I personally love it.

    I see Azzarello's tone meant to be more traditional on a Greek tragedy. What with the revelations, humor, adventure, and complex family ties of Diana and the Gods. And

    And although I'm sort of tired of all the doom-gloom of the New 52, I love that WW is going in the darker direction just because I've never seen her go there. It's different on it's own terms and that's why I'm intrigued.

    But I understand why some purist are mad. This is bleak from what their accustomed to for Diana, but they shouldn't put it down until Azzarello's run is over with. Many questions and answers are meant to come down the line, and I think haters should wait until the entire run is done so that they can pass judgement.

    But for the most part, I'm enjoying this.

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  7. Looks like a fairly decent new start for Diana!...again!

    I, personally, am loving the art moreso than the story itself.

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  8. I'm glad it works better collected. I read it issue to issue and just ended up not caring by issue 4. (Admittedly, that's been the case with a lot of books recently, which is why I finally went all-trades this year.)

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  9. I'll have to consider the Odyssey angle when I pick up the next trade, Lionheart. That would seem a good story to parallel using Diana, and especially with the revelations in this volume, makes a lot of sense. I'll definitely be staying with Azzarello and Chiang at least through the next volume; no doubt their take on Wonder Woman is radical (and I'm not saying "bad," just exceptionally different) but their craft is perfect, I'm not disputing that.

    I wonder, however, what Azzarello might do for issue #18, for instance. It's one thing to take Diana down this considerably dark path, but then to stick with it issue by issue; I wonder if it's sustainable or, should Azzarello bow out, if another writer can stick with it or whether they'd return to "traditional Wonder Woman" fairly quickly.

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