Review: Superman/Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Power Couple hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Superman/Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Power Couple is another impressive debut from writer Charles Soule, following his start on Swamp Thing in Swamp Thing Vol. 4: Seeder that I read last week. The Superman/Wonder Woman relationship is terribly fraught with narrative hurdles, many of which Soule overcomes or sidesteps with surprising ease. This book, which could easily portray two of DC Comics's biggest heroes at their most petty, instead delivers them at their most mature.

Over a decade ago, Jeph Loeb's Superman/Batman was a big deal precisely because it recognized that the teaming of these two characters necessitated big stories that affected the landscape of the DC Universe. Soule's Superman/Wonder Woman offers the same aesthetic, introducing a trio of notable Superman villains into the New 52 landscape. Soule's Superman/Wonder Woman is smart on one hand and important on the other, and that's a pleasant turnout for a book with such potential to go wrong.

[Review contains spoilers]

Soule establishes here early and strongly the baseline world views of his main characters -- Superman is Clark Kent, at heart a super-powered Midwestern farm boy, while Princess Diana of the Amazons is Wonder Woman, hero and professional do-gooder. As the two strongest people on the planet, they share experiences that no one else does, but Wonder Woman's real self is what she shows to the world and Superman's is what he hides from them. This forms the basis of the inevitable conflict between the happy couple -- Wonder Woman wants to celebrate their relationship and Superman wants to keep it secret; even when their relationship is revealed, Superman still sees it as a cause for concern.

The fatal flaw in a Superman/Wonder Woman relationship is that there's more story potential in the two being unhappy with one another than happy, and therefore their relationship is always going to tend toward conflict, and that conflict is often going to feel manufactured. Given that, and given the thousands of poor choices Soule could have made to cause trouble in the relationship -- Superman irrationally jealous of Steve Trevor or Orion, Wonder Woman mad because Superman leaves a stack of dirty dishes in the Fortress of Solitude sink -- the "secret identity conflict" is surely the lesser of many evils. It's not petty, as many comics-relationship conflicts are, but rather comes out of the worldviews of the characters -- this is what I think, and what you think is the opposite, and I don't understand it, and vice-versa.

This is not seamless, of course, though again it's better than it could have been. "Superman is really Clark Kent" is the long-standing, classic portrayal of the character, but Soule's "Wonder Woman lives in public" seems manufactured mainly to present the opposite perspective. The greater issue is that a couple years in to the New 52, the audience still has no idea how Wonder Woman came to Man's World, what was supposed to be her mission there, and what she's been doing for the five years between Justice League Vol. 1: Origin and when she lip-locked with Superman at the end of Justice League Vol. 2: Villain's Journey, and so it's difficult for Soule to make Wonder Woman's argument feel authentic and earned. Also, given that the veritable basis of the DC Universe is super-heroes disguised as mild-mannered citizens, and a number of Wonder Woman's peers also have secret identities, her significant difficulty understanding it rings false.

The reader's sympathies will be with Superman -- we're not about to say, "Yeah, he should give up that Clark Kent stuff" -- and Soule must walk a fine line to not have Wonder Woman come off as the villain of the piece. One of the strongest moments of the book, one that really solidified to me that Soule has it under control, is in the sixth chapter when Superman makes a passive-aggressive remark and Wonder Woman stops him, reminds him that they're "not children," and asks him about the issue. If superheroes must have relationship problems, then this, at least, is how I'd want to see them solve them, with insight and maturity, better than what normal people might do.

If this title could have been dismissed as "just" a romance book, Soule dispels that notion with the one-two-three punch of Doomsday, General Zod, and Faora, possibly the most notable and headline-making of Superman's villains. It's wonderful to see all three in the New 52, even as I'm now completely stymied as to what it is that happened when Superman previously "died" in the New 52, given that he doesn't act as though he's met Doomsday before. But in using these big villains, Soule does evoke Jeph Loeb's Superman/Batman, as well as when Soule and artist Tony Daniel create "battle armor" alternate costumes for the heroes.

Two other favorite moments: First, that in the book's grand conclusion, Soule takes that old chestnut about how a sword is so sharp it can split an atom, and actually uses it to have Superman and Wonder Woman split an atom. Very creative, and the resulting blast and the damage to Superman is well-rendered by Daniel (whereas his Wonder Woman is supposedly banged-up, but doesn't look it). Second, that when the heroes reconcile, they go to the London bar first debuted in Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman, and low and behold, Clark and Diana bond over their shared love of dancing. This does feel authentic to the characters, and it's a smart choice by Soule in giving the couple common ground outside superheroics.

It also bears mentioning that Soule and Daniel strongly suggest that Superman and Wonder Woman are intimate between the pages of chapters three and four. This only makes sense for an adult relationship, but as well, for the entirety of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe, while Clark Kent married Lois Lane and Batman slept with Catwoman, Wonder Woman was never depicted intimately with anyone, a bizarre double-standard. Soule breaks that particular taboo, tastefully and without fanfare, and it's another mark in his favor and in favor of this book.

I felt Charles Soule got Swamp Thing's voice just right, and in Superman/Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Power Couple, it's voice that wins out again -- he presents an intelligent, readable Superman and Wonder Woman that the reader has no problem following through to the end. I do note that, perhaps unfortunately, the remainder of Soule's run seems to be taken up with the "Doomed" crossover (though after that, the stellar team of Peter Tomasi and Doug Mahnke come on), but in all I have a sense Superman/Wonder Woman is a series I'll be reading for the long run.

[Includes original and variant covers, issue #1 wraparound cover]

Next week, Greg Rucka's Lazarus and more.
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