Review: Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Discussions as to what Wonder Woman stories should be "about" sometimes seem to me to be missing the point or over-thinking it; though Superman stories are sometimes "about" truth and justice or Batman stories sometimes "about" vengeance, writers seem less concerned with what these stories mean than whether they're good stories or not, which isn't always the case with Wonder Woman. One reason I think Brian Azzarello's current run on Wonder Woman has been successful is that Azzarello appeared less concerned at the outset with Wonder Woman's mission or the contradictions within her character and more concerned simply with telling a good Wonder Woman story within her mythological world (I have equally liked Wonder Woman runs by Greg Rucka and by Gail Simone, that did and didn't share some of these concerns).

What I like most about DC's Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman Vol. 1 (the print collection of the digital series) is the freedom it offers from the hunt for a "proper" contextualization of Wonder Woman. Some of the stories ascribe her certain motives, others of them ascribe her others. The stories range from traditionally superheroic, set in a variety of recognizable Wonder Woman eras, to the abstract and the absurd. Some of the stories take the opportunity to make social statements that the monthly comics might not allow for; others just appear to be postcards from a bygone era. Sensation Comics is not a long read nor an overly involved one (the brevity of many of the digital stories prevents the authors from dipping more than a toe in the deep end) but it is an interesting study of all the ways "a Wonder Woman story" can be interpreted.

[Review contains spoilers]

The two stories in the book that interested me the most were Amanda Diebert and Cat Staggs's "Defender of Truth" and Sean E. Williams and Marguerite Sauvage's "Bullets and Bracelets," not only because they were the two with the greatest social relevance, but also because each "transgressed" to speak their mind in ways, for one reason or another, the regular Wonder Woman series hasn't been able to do.

Diebert and Staggs's starts out as a Wonder Woman vs. Circle story, which is nicely classic (one thing we've been missing in Azzarello's Wonder Woman are Diana's cadre of rogues); Staggs draws a tiny Wonder Woman flipping and jumping out of the panels in a manner that evoked for me both the 1970s Wonder Woman television show and Super Friends. Had it ended there, it might have been a good enough, well-drawn pseudo-classic Wonder Woman story. But Diebert concludes with a two-page kicker in which a young boy, watching Wonder Woman's battle with Circe, is teased by his friends for liking "girl stuff"; Diana comes along to put to lie that someone can't enjoy something because of gender, sexual orientation, race, creed, etc. She says, "... because the truth is being true to yourself is never wrong."

Diebert couches this interestingly in a boy liking "girl stuff," but it's easy to hear resonances here of boys telling girls they can't like "boy stuff," i.e. comics and video games. This is probably as close as we'll get to Wonder Woman weighing in on these exterior controversies, and it's good that the digital realm offers a place where DC is willing to do that.

Williams and Sauvage's "Bullets and Bracelets" is a curiously winding story in which Diana is accosted by two men, one who thinks she's dressed like a "slut ... corrupting our children" and another who thinks she looks "hot"; she later befriends two young girls, one of whose mother can't always afford to feed the child; then the second man accosts Wonder Woman again and gets violent. All of this is oddly predicated on Wonder Woman leading a rock band and Steve Trevor going missing, apparently. Williams concludes with Diana noting that Athena had called America the "last citadel of democracy and equal rights for women," but Diana thinks there's still some work to do.

I thought Williams did a nice job cutting through some of the back-and-forth about Diana's costume where, when one man says she shows too much skin and another suggests he'd like her to show even more, Diana affirms she dresses as she does "because I want to ... not to provoke or impress you" (one could still argue whether realistically Wonder Woman would choose her classic costume, but it's a potent statement nonetheless). Later, the man essentially catcalls Diana, and when she's offended, he gets angry and grabs her, saying he was just trying to pay her a "compliment"; Diana warns him, "Don't ever touch me without my permission, friend." Again, when taken in view of street harassment, con harassment, and similar incidents, it's nice here too to see Wonder Woman taking a stand (though it's perhaps unfortunate it's only in digital comics where this can happen).

Ivan Cohen and Marcus To's "Taketh Away" also uses a trio of Wonder Woman's most recognizable villains, and offers an interesting deconstruction of Wonder Woman as she's seemingly stripped of her gifts from the gods one by one. Strength and wisdom are givens, but I was surprised when Diana lost her beauty, with Cohen presenting Diana's beauty as a superpower and a gift from the gods and not something intrinsic (she is not her appearance, as it were). Unfortunately To doesn't illustrate clearly the difference between beautiful and "normal" Diana, and Cohen only takes a couple of panels of Diana being "normal" before she's back to being Wonder Woman again. On the plus side, Cohen sets the story in the "Ambassador Diana" era that Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka each used so well.

Another notable aspect is a conversation Cohen presents between Diana and a Glenn Beck-type figure, in which the man accused Diana of trying to promote her Greek religion through her superheroic activities. Diana makes a good speech about her religion being private, and Cohen presents the talk show host as clearly in the wrong, but there's still some validity in this exploration of Wonder Woman as an intrinsically religious superhero (that Diana's religion is ancient mitigates what would certainly be a backlash were she overtly of the faith of a modern-practiced religion). This superheroic story is considerably different from Neil Kelid and Dean Haspiel's 1940s-era Wonder Woman/Etta Candy story, though there's a similar thread examining Wonder Woman and religion when she refuses to accept the existence of ghosts, namely Deadman, because it defies her beliefs.

Honorable mention to Rob Williams and Tom Lyle's "Attack of the 500-Foot Wonder Woman," which out of nowhere is a late Silver Age/early Bronze Age "Satellite era" Justice League tale with Diana, the Atom, Hawkman, and Hawkgirl. Ollie Masters and Amy Mebberson's Wonder Woman/Catwoman story is a cute art deco piece reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke's and Cameron Stewart's Catwoman work. Gilbert Hernandez's musclebound Wonder Woman is wonderfully weird, and Corina Bechko and Gabriel Hardman's Darkseid tale is effectively harrowing (and about 30 pages long, to boot). I felt less enthusiastic about Gail Simone and Ethan Van Sciver's Wonder Woman vs. Batman's villains story if only because it was not quite the Wonder Woman/Oracle story than I'd hoped, and treated the bad guys somewhat generically (like Penguin included among villains rioting in the street).

I am not generally one for anthology series, but Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman Vol. 1 is a nicely diverse collection of Wonder Woman stories, neither too long to drag on nor too choppy to be enjoyable. I'm not fluent in the Superman and Batman digital anthology comics, but I'm guessing they don't offer the kind of abstract story that, say, Gilbert Hernandez does here. Whether Wonder Woman's intrinsic transgressiveness -- a female superhero in a largely-male superhero world -- lends the character to broader interpretations or if there's some other reason stories like Hernandez's work is for discussion, but I haven't often seen a study of a mainstream character like this, and I'm sure other characters would benefit from the same treatment.

[Includes original and variant covers]
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  1. I assume you'll review the final volume of Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman soon. I'm interested to hear your take on it, as well as his entire work on the character. I personally thought it was brilliant and more daring than most of the New 52 comics upon release.

  2. This review comments a couple of times how unfortunate it is that Wonder Woman's more socially conscious moments are "only" available as a digital edition.

    What's being left out, though, is that the digital issues were collected in print comics too, and this review is of a print trade collection. There's nothing to lament! Choose your format!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I do say at one point late in the review that "it's perhaps unfortunate it's only in digital comics where [socially conscious moments] can happen," though elsewhere in the review I say that "some of the stories take the opportunity to make social statements that the monthly comics might not allow for" and also I make reference to the "regular" Wonder Woman series.

      That's the distinction that's being made -- not digital vs. print, but that DC offers "socially conscious" Wonder Woman in an anthology series but not in the mainstream or monthly title.* I've no objection to either format; my point in this particular case is that I wish they could say in the headliners what they're saying in the supplements.

      (* Though, I think the distinction between digital and digital-in-print is a small difference, personally; also this works in less-socially-conscious ways too, as in DC portraying Superman killing pregnant Lois Lane in digital comics when I don't think they'd "go there" in the mainstream title.)