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

Monday, May 02, 2016

For a book that, as far back as 2013, Grant Morrison was talking about elements of free love and calling it "quite provocative," and that warranted the recent headline "Wonder Woman gets back to her BDSM roots in 2016" (not to mention a bevy of outraged Goodreads reviews), I expected Wonder Woman: Earth One to be much more provocative than it has turned out to be.

In all the meta-mechanics inherent in Morrison's work, I sometimes forget what a versatile comics writer he is, that for every twisty thought-puzzle there is like Final Crisis, there's forty-some issues of JLA, which themselves pondered their own navel but also offered call-outs to boxing glove arrows and the then-absent Hawkman. Which is to say, Morrison's a philosopher, but he can also write a straight-faced superhero story.

That is what we find in Wonder Woman: Earth One. There are elements, to be sure, of bondage and submission, but at their most outlandish they are presented as being outlandish; this is no Fifty Shades of Wonder Woman. What's shocking about the through-line of the story is how traditional it is -- Themyscira, Steve Trevor, the contest, Man's World.

Morrison upturns the apple cart really not at all, and that's fine. For a graphic novel re-telling of Wonder Woman's origin, Morrison deftly blends classic and modern elements, with much more deference to the "classic" than I expected. It's a tale that Morrison adroitly tells with conflict but no real villain or violence. I'd happily read another, but moreover I'd be interested to see Morrison dig deeper into the Wonder Woman mythos in the second volume, using concepts like Cheetah or Ares, and to see how Morrison can bring this same aesthetic to those further aspects of the franchise.

[Review contains spoilers]

It's a fine sign of modernity that Morrison's suggestion of Wonder Woman Diana as gay or bisexual isn't hardly so controversial any more. A variety of presentations of Wonder Woman have long since done away with the idea of the Amazons as celibate, and to set Diana aside among them hardly holds up to scrutiny. Equally I'm not sure about any fuss toward Morrison that he suggests the Amazons have a bondage culture (hearkening back to the ideas of Wonder Woman's creator William Moulton Marston); clearly the book presents these ideas as incompatible with the modern world, as when Steve Trevor kicks Diana out of the room when she presents him with a studded dog collar.

Really Morrison's most pointed charge in Earth One, directed to the reader, is found in Diana's conflict with her mother, Queen Hippolyta. Diana bristles in her role in her mother's "perverse" play as the "eternal, unchanging princess on your fantasy island," a charge she repeats some pages later. With a few variations, Hippolyta's overprotectiveness is always what Diana rebels against, what brings her to enter the Amazonian contest and depart for Man's World; Steve Trevor, give or take, is the opportunity, not the inspiration. But Morrison most assuredly sets on trial here, ultimately, not just Hippolyta, but also the very readers who might balk at changes (if they be changes at all) to this Elseworlds Diana's sexuality or culture. To keep Diana ever unchanging is stifling to the extreme.

"This isn't how it happens," protests Diana's lover Mala, the book's epitome of staying eternally the same. "Man's World," Morrison's Diana says in the end, breaking the fourth wall as Morrison is wont to do, "it's time we had a talk."

While Morrison's points are valid, the timing of his making them is problematic. Certainly Wonder Woman has as much right as any character (and especially any female character) to argue for a fairer shake, but again, some of these points are not so controversial as they once were. Morrison arrives in the end at the idea that Diana is not made of clay, but is flesh and blood; it's a change I don't feel is entirely necessary, though I can see its merit, but also one that Brian Azzarello just recently established with much fanfare in the New 52 Wonder Woman series, Morrison can't help and isn't at fault for the timing of a similar idea, but it takes away some of Earth One's gusto.

In the same way, that Diana life involves any intimacy (with either gender) would have been groundbreaking during the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths "virgin-whore" days, but is less so since Gail Simone's Wonder Woman run cracked the intimacy door open and the New 52 Superman/Wonder Woman relationship blew it off its hinges. None of that detracts from Wonder Woman: Earth One as enjoyable reading, and at least Grant Morrison forwards, instead of stepping back from, Diana's recent narrative accomplishments.

Wonder Woman is a character with no lack of contradictions, whether in-born or built up over time, namely that she's an ambassador of peace who accomplishes her goal through violence. In Wonder Woman: Earth One Grant Morrison shows that he gets it, and addresses the contradiction in the book's central mystery, that Diana was meant to be a weapon against Hercules but through her own natural kindness overcame that. Though Morrison's story is highly referential to stories past -- from the Amazons' kangas to "Beth" Candy's sorority and more -- it ends with Diana asking the gods to let her overcome her contradictions and "be more than I was made to me." Though not much new ground is broken by Wonder Woman: Earth One, it's a book that looks toward Wonder Woman's future growth and continued evolution, and that's always worthwhile.
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5 comments:

  1. Haha wasn't expecting that goodreads jab! It seems like people are all over the place with this one. While I am interested in Earth one stories, I'm going to have to give this one a pass.

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    1. Well, I didn't mean to jab necessarily, so much as to point out significant negative reactions to the book that were different than my own.

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  2. The most surprising thing to me about this book is how simple and straightforward it is, compared to most of Morrison's work. I approached it with some trepidation, not because of those misguided Goodreads reviews, but because Morrison himself has admitted to having a hard time getting a handle on Wonder Woman, which was why she never had a big role in any of his JLA stories, nor in Final Crisis.

    Still, I enjoyed this a lot, and I was particularly impressed by how Wonder Woman never betrays her pacifist values even when facing Medusa. The way Morrison embraces the kinkiness of Marston's original stories also works surprisingly well, and didn't feel gratuitous or tone-deaf to me. I could have done without most of the "Holas" and Etta's "woo-woos", though. Also, Paquette's art is absolutely stunning, and he sure has come a long way from when he drew part of Eric Luke's run on the ongoing.

    What bothers me, though, is that Morrison doesn't seem to have any plans for a second volume. Rucka would probably be the ideal person to keep this version of Wonder Woman going, but that would be redundant now that he's going to write the upcoming relaunch, and he'll even get to tell his own version of her origin.

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    1. I'm always impressed with a superhero book that manages to resolve the conflict with a modicum of punching and kicking. Morrison did that well here, though now I'm eager to see him challenge that by doing the same, but with Cheetah or someone in the plot. And I thought the news of the day was the exact opposite, that Morrison is planning sequels; see The Beat, etc.

      I guess "Rebirth" is as "Rebirth" does, but I'm not thrilled Diana gets another brand new origin just a couple years after the last one. I recognize there's material there about the Amazons that some don't like, but I thought "daughter of Zeus" was functional enough (though I also thought "made of clay" was functional enough).

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    2. Wow, I totally missed the news that Morrison has two more volumes planned, and Paquette apparently will draw them as well. Now I have three upcoming WW projects to be excited about (Rebirth is the other one).

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