Review: Wonder Woman Vol. 1: The Lies (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Greg Rucka's first Rebirth Wonder Woman volume, Wonder Woman Vol. 1: The Lies, is a challenging book, and I sense it's the start of more challenges to come.

Rucka's first Wonder Woman run is among my top favorite comics runs, and coming as it did during DC Comics's pre-/post-Infinite Crisis heyday that included Rucka's semi-connected runs on Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Checkmate, not to mention his Gotham Central. For this reason I received the news of Rucka writing the Rebirth Wonder Woman with much excitement and I've been anticipating this collection for a while, even as I'm aware you can't go home again; Rucka's short Blackest Night return to Wonder Woman, for instance, didn't quite capture for me the original run's magic.

I was going to note that the first "regular" chapter of Rucka's The Lies (after the Rebirth special) offers scant dialogue from Diana and focuses more on Diana's supporting cast than the hero herself, and that continues for a bit before Diana comes to the forefront of the story. That's difficult, even off-putting pacing, requiring more of the reader than perhaps a jumping-on point necessarily should. At the same time, I'm reminded that Rucka's original first Wonder Woman issue didn't have Diana on screen until the last two pages, though that one issue on its own felt in many respects more full than the entirety of Lies.

This is to say that Lies has a slow build, and while we have indication from Rucka's past work that a slow build can pay off, the build here is pretty slow -- six issues and the Rebirth special mainly just to save Steve Trevor from danger. Rucka's choice to tell parallel stories in Wonder Woman's twice monthly issues is an interesting one, but whereas with Batman for instance the double shipping finds us speeding through the storylines, there's an extent to which Rucka's story is told even slower than normal because we have to wait until the third volume to resolve anything set up here. And I'm also unsure if this format might read better in single issues than trades; I sense occasionally here I'm missing information that might be being related in flashback in the even-numbered "Year One" issues.

And all of that refers more or less to the surface challenges facing the reader in Rucka's Lies, without even beginning to unpack the relationships between the characters, what Rucka necessarily casts as the "lies" here, the sheer depth of the continuity sinkhole this story opens up, the gender politics, the references to Rucka's past runs, and what swipes Lies does or does not take at other teams' Wonder Woman work. All of that and we're only at the beginning.

[Review contains spoilers]

At the outset I'll say that the moment in Wonder Woman: The Lies that felt most to me like coming home was when Rucka had Diana, Etta Candy, and former Cheetah Barbara Ann Minerva out shopping for clothes for the newly-human Barbara Ann, and as the store is slowly mobbed by the curious, Diana ventures out to greet a mall-full of her fans. This is Rucka's "classic" Wonder Woman to a T, a woman who despite growing up as a princess mostly sees herself as a normal person, slightly discomfited by the fame her life has brought her, but who embraces it not, as Etta explains, "because she thinks she has to," but "because she knows what it means to [the public]" that she offers her time and attention. Comparisons between Rucka's Wonder Woman and Brian Azzarello's are inevitable but to some extent unfair (I'm an avowed Rucka fan and I also liked Azzarello's run very much), but one thing we can say is that Azzarello's scope was somewhat focused, borne mainly of what Diana meant to one person, Zola, and Rucka's previous run had an exceptionally large scope, often how Diana and her actions were perceived by the entire world. Though in Rucka's new run we also see a focused scope -- the core cast of Diana, Steve Trevor, Etta Candy, and Barbara Ann Minerva -- it's in this scene that we get the first sense of where Rucka's Diana past intersects with Rucka's Diana present.

Again, setting aside both the Cheetah storyline and Diana's quest to uncover her own true history, the connective thread of Lies is the re-establishment of Diana's relationship with Steve Trevor. To an extent I'm surprised Rucka sailed this ship (no pun intended) that quickly; Lies establishes right away that Diana and Steve share an almost psychic connection, suggesting they're meant to be. That ties up the Wonder Woman character in a romantic relationship pretty early, and one that makes any other future romantic interest hard to believe. Rucka himself has pointed out DC's previous hesitation to portray Diana in romantic (and especially sexual) relationships, but I'm not sure the New 52 Diana going straight from Superman to Steve Trevor is the solution either (I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of this is mandated by the forthcoming movie storyline).

Rucka does believably portray Steve as Diana's equal both physically and psychologically; he loses no ground in being saved by Diana but can also hold his own, and as Diana frees the young girls kidnapped by Cheetah's demigod warlord, Steve quips about the man's "toxic ideas of masculinity." Though there is some aspect of flirtatious irony here, Rucka's dialogue when Diana and Steve kiss seems pulled from a modern day consent guide (not that there's anything wrong with that): "I am going to kiss you now, Steve." "I am entirely okay with you doing that, Diana." One senses from various interviews and controversies that Rucka has in mind to present a fully twenty-first century Wonder Woman with as few exploitative elements as possible, up to and including entirely revamping her origin, and so I read aspects like this as intentional, a Diana and Steve who typify everything the modern social movement teaches us about equality.

At the same time Rucka's Steve Trevor is one of Lies's many puzzling aspects. Late in the story Steve and Diana discuss her relationship with the post-Flashpoint Superman, now deceased, with Steve noting "I'm not really up on everything that's been going on there." It's an odd statement given Steve's rather central role the past half-decade as ARGUS's liaison to the Justice League, who knows everything that's been going on including forming a League of his own, and it's weird that Rucka suddenly presents Steve as now a military solider working under Etta Candy, who used to be his assistant. I grant of course that some of these changes might be coming from above Rucka, and/or that Rucka has a right to change what he pleases at the start of his run, and/or also that the fact of the DC Universe: Rebirth special gives writers a little license to alter continuity around the edges (Tom King's Batman is another example of this, even though the Rebirth special really granted no such thing in-story).

Setting all of that aside, however, for Rucka to give Steve that line is so out of Steve's character that it's hard not to read it as Rucka's own sentiments, an instance (one of relatively few) of Rucka decrying what came before, essentially the New 52 as a whole. But this is not so simple when it comes to Steve. The Wonder Woman: Rebirth special and other scenes seem to present as our options either the Azzarello New 52 Wonder Woman origin or the George Perez post-Crisis on Infinite Earths origin, with Rucka favoring Perez. But that would exclude Steve; the Diana/Steve relationship, such as it is, is wholly a construct of the New 52 unless one wants to go back thirty years or more to their pre-Crisis affairs. Though meant authentically (unless we're in for a really big twist), Diana's relationship with Steve is incongruously one of the very "lies" that Rucka's new run seems intent on setting aside.

The "lie" the title actually seems to refer to, revealed at the end, is that Diana has never actually returned to her home of Themyscira all the times she believes she's gone there. A key point of Rucka's story already is to underscore an oft-overlooked aspect of Diana's origin, that when she left Themyscira with the marooned Steve at the outset, she did not know if she could return; as such, built in to Diana's origin is her selfless devotion to others over herself. But the "why" of Diana leaving Themyscira remains unclear, something Rucka will hopefully answer in Year One, as I'm not sure we ever learned this in five years of the New 52; at present, we know Diana sacrificed, but not why she sacrificed. And again, the possibilities for how much Rucka does or doesn't want to roll things back are great. Depending on whether the New 52 Diana is also the post-Crisis Diana (as various "shards" of memory seem to suggest), "never" having been back to Themyscira could refer just to the New 52 Diana's interactions with her blonde-haired mother Hippolyta (and, as I hope, the dark-haired Hippolyta is waiting for her somewhere, having not seen her since Wonder Woman: Odyssey Vol. 2*) or it could refer to all of Diana's visits to Themyscira post-Crisis and post-Flashpoint, making the "real" Themyscira entirely Rucka's construct-to-come. No doubt Rucka has a plan, but the readers stand on the precipice of a continuity rabbit hole right now that we can't yet see the bottom of.

Rucka muddles it all further with his use of Veronica Cale and Sasha Bordeaux, two of his most notable character creations from the Detective/Wonder Woman/Checkmate runs. Even as I might say it's OK that Rucka's Rebirth Wonder Woman includes less walk-and-talk than his original run, being less West Wing-inspired and so on, Rucka positioning Cale as the bad guy again begs these comparisons. Cale's presence is further evidence that Rucka intends to reel back Diana's history to its pre-Flashpoint status -- essentially, to pick up his Wonder Woman run where he left off before with Cale as the antagonist. That doesn't bother me necessarily if done right; if Rucka's going to use the same villain as before, I'd as soon this story be connected to what came before than for Rucka to tell two stories that independently use the same villain. And I can't help but wonder if Rucka is simply messing with the audience by bringing back fan-favorite Sasha Bordeaux only to swiftly reveal her as Cale's lackey and then seemingly kill her off (this being a cruel but clever tease); another, more optimistic, possibility is that said rabbit hole goes so far down as to resurrect Sasha and Rucka's Checkmate by the time we reach the end.

Wonder Woman Vol. 1: The Lies emerges then as a book that, all else aside, requires more than the usual effort for the reading alone, unfolding slowly and with attractive but somewhat staid art by Liam Sharp that furthers that sense of slowness. Layer on top of that again the social undertones of the Cheetah story, the wobbly continuity, and Greg Rucka's red herrings, and it's not the least surprising that Lies might give the neophyte reader pause -- except that, for someone coming in to Wonder Woman fresh, I expect this Rebirth version better resembles the forthcoming movie than a version with greater New 52 trappings would. I'm on board with what underlies Rucka's Wonder Woman this time, I'm pretty sure, and eager to see what Rucka has planned. There's a lot of this we're probably not going to be able to assess until this about the third or fourth volume out.

* For reasons deserved and not, J. Michael Straczynski and Phil Hester's Wonder Woman: Odyssey has a bad reputation, but I continue to think highly of it, and after over five years the ending -- the end of the last issue of Wonder Woman before Flashpoint -- still gets me. And I quote: "Let my mother's words stay with me through whatever follows. She will always be my mother. I will always be her daughter, Diana of Themyscira. Live or die, we remain Amazons. And I will always be Wonder Woman."
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21 comments:

  1. This is a great review. I look forward to reading the book, probably in many years!

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    1. I just get three trades per month from the library (I want to have time to read other things!), and thus comic books I want to read are published faster than I can read them. Someday I want to read all Wonder Woman collections in order, but I have no idea when I'll get around to that.

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    2. Three trades per month. My god, the self control!

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  2. As a newcomer to Wonder Woman, I will say that these issues were nearly incomprehensible to me, though clearly well-written, while the early Year One issues had me glued. I guess I can see why they decided to split the storylines up and do Year One later, but I think you're right that it'd be hard to jump on with just this trade.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I'll be curious to see how Year One, the second part of this story (Vol. 3), and the fourth volume finale all shape my perception of this book. To some extent I've grown tired of origin stories about origins, really; I'm more excited to see Greg Rucka tell ongoing, present Wonder Woman stories than to read all this business of fixing things and setting the stage for telling those stories.

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    2. I think I am just tired of Wonder Woman origin stories at this point. Azzarello, Morrison, Thompson, De Liz, and now Rucka have all taken the WW origin for a spin over the last few years in various projects. Just leave it alone for a while.

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    3. We had that problem with Superman for a little while too, I think.

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  3. I like Rucka's work but much like Waid I really dislike how dismissive he is of any interpretations of characters that clash with his. The whole controversy with Rucka forcing DC to kick Frank Cho off the variant covers was ridiculous and much like Mark Waid screaming in the cinema because Superman killed Zod in MoS makes him look petty and childish, like a kid that doesn't want to share his toys.

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    1. That's Frank's side on the events, and he has a reputation for picking fights with other creators. The truth probably lies somewhere closer to the middle, with Cho getting frustrated with Rucka editing his work.

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    2. Yeah, that sounds more likely. Tbh I don't think we'll ever get the full story but as long as they both continue to put out quality work I'm happy. Although maybe a few less "Outrage" covers would be nice too.

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  4. I struggle to understand why DC hasnt listed this for a Deluxe Edition release. My only guess is, they're waiting for Volume three to be released, so they may collect Volumes 1 and 3 together in a HC, while doing the same for 2 and 4. If so, that's an even heavier wait.

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    1. A bunch of titles don't have deluxe listings yet. Give it time; I'd be really surprised if they didn't do one for Wonder Woman.

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    2. It'll probably show up in the next catalog or so.

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  5. I suspect that you really don't have to worry about the two arcs being overly interconnected, except starring the same character. I loved Rucka's original Wonder Woman run, too. I caught the first few issues of the Rebirth series and read them with much enthusiasm for that reason. The only reason I haven't continued reading is because I'm short of funds for that sort of thing. I've really only made a concerted effort to keep up with King's Batman, which has only gotten better since it began, with a lot of attention-getting material that has kept me engaged.

    Anyway, I liked what I have read of Rucka's work here, and didn't have much of a problem staying keyed in. I think part of the problem is that DC is deliberately slowing the pace of its storytelling across the line, so that every title has an obvious story thread to sell. While arcs have obviously been a major part of the publishing model in the past, this new push is making what worked so well in Snyder's Batman, and Johns' Green Lantern, and making it a regular rather than sporadic element. It makes for better trades, anyway, so that writers, and I think DC deliberately picked writers capable of writing in this style, can tell full stories for trade rather than the more random material that can sometimes be lumped together just because companies are reprinting in collections more regularly than ever before.

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    1. >> I suspect that you really don't have to worry about the two arcs being overly interconnected

      I don't know. * Minor spoilers * Late in the story, Barbara Minerva just happens to know a place where Diana can cross ethereal planes to get to Themyscira, and it's such an unremarked on moment -- How does she know this, etc.? -- that I wondered if it wasn't a nod to something happening in the even numbered issues, like we see Minerva discover it there in the past and then it comes to play in the future. But I can't know for sure until I read Vol. 2.

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  6. I'm loving this run, the present day story especially. While it's slow, it's also being very careful and deliberate. It's a story with some dark fantasy, a mystery with a hard hook, and a real gravitas about it. I also like that it's more show-don't-tell than several other Rebirth books (which do a bit too much exposition dumping at times).

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  7. is it a good starting point to start reading WW from this trade?

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    1. Probably? It depends on how into Wonder Woman you want to get. If you just want to pick up with DC's current run of Wonder Woman, then yes, start here; this is meant to be a Wonder Woman "jumping on point" for DC's Rebirth era. Alternatively, if you're interested in modern Wonder Woman comics (last thirty years or so), there's some great stories by George Perez (the beginning of Wonder Woman's modern era) collected both in a large hardcover and smaller paperbacks, and then from there you can find assorted collections (including Rucka's first run) through to the present.

      So short answer, yes; longer answer, it depends on what you're looking for.

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  8. I somehow missed this review.

    I think it's a bit early to make some of the conclusions you're making. It was an intriguing read that left me with a lot of questions and not so much answers. I liked that he brought back some of the characters of his previous run. Wonder Woman lacked a bit in the "human" support cast until now.

    You also mentioned in one of the comments that Barbara Minerva happens to know how to cross ethereal planes to get to Themyscira, but as recently as Wonder Woman #47 she's been there and we don't know how she got there either. At first I thought, that's why she went to Cheetah in the first place when she couldn't reach Themyscira, but by the end I was doubting if things like that even mattered now.

    I'm really wondering what's going to happen and it was a good read, but I really hope that what came before wont be dismissed. I had so much fun reading Brian Azzarello his run, even Meredith Finch her Greek god intrigues were good (not as good, but still fun to read).

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    1. Love me some Rucka, but I think it's a sure thing we're going to lose Azzarello's run, even as I feel it's done some good things for the Wonder Woman franchise over the past five years.

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