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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