Review: Wonder Woman: Dead Earth hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


Wonder Woman Dead Earth

Beautiful, complicated, Daniel Warren Johnson’s Wonder Woman: Dead Earth is a fine first entry for Diana into the world of DC Black Label, with just one giant-sized problem at its center. That problem — who caused this “dead Earth” and why — was probably inevitable for a story like this with this particular premise, but it’s an anomaly among other books of this genre. It speaks to the still-fraught relationship that DC and the audience have with one of their tentpole characters, Wonder Woman.

[Review contains spoilers (also for Batman: Last Knight on Earth)]

At the outset, let’s say again that Wonder Woman: Dead Earth is a gorgeous book. The Black Label moniker here isn’t language or sexual content, but rather gore — not to the level of horror, but rather the blood spatters, disembowelments, and renderings of sword fights and giant monster battles, all of which Johnson illustrates with aplomb. His scenes are drawn with gritty grace, his body-horror monsters fleshy and biological (if not also anatomically suggestive). Again, this is the kind of interesting, unusual art that I wish was the rule and not the exception among DC’s mainstream books. Johnson shares visual similarities with Riley Rossmo, who’s been ubiquitous in Rebirth, so maybe Johnson will also join the stable (I see he’s doing a Death Metal special, for one).

In a story where Diana wakes up amnesic on a post-apocalyptic Earth and seeks to discover the cause of the destruction, that the answer is Diana herself is not so surprising. By provenance, another recent Black Label title, Batman: Last Knight on Earth asks the same question and gets the same relative answer. But notably in the Batman book, it turns out to be the original Batman and not our clone protagonist who’s responsible for the destruction; in Kingdom Come, it is Superman’s inaction that leads to an atomic blast, for which he feels guilty, but it’s not Superman’s actions himself.

Johnson takes up the classic Wonder Woman themes of willing submission here; as a child Diana experiences the great expanse of her powers and chooses to wear “gauntlets” (though more like shackles) to dampen her strength. This submission allows her to be the Wonder Woman we all know and love; however, when the Amazons conflict with mankind and the world leaders fire missiles at Themyscira, Diana removes her gauntlets to try to stop them. She’s unsuccessful; Themyscira is mostly destroyed; and in blind rage Diana attacks and eventually kills Superman. The disastrous “Great Fire,” it turns out, is not a result of humans' bombs, but rather Diana’s brutal fight with Superman.

I first remember encountering this concept of Wonder Woman wearing her bracelets to mitigate her powers in Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman. I’m not sure if it has historical basis — I’m not sure if Johnson came to this on his own, via the New 52 continuity, or if it’s inherent in the Wonder Woman mythos (though I don’t think so). It seems to me problematic, rather the antithesis of what we might hope Wonder Woman would stand for; it seems to favor hiding one’s true self over living up to one’s full potential, and goes even so far as what we see in these pages is a young girl being told not to express herself, not to demonstrate her full abilities, but rather to hold herself back. And when Diana does “express herself,” as it were, the story shows that destruction follows in her wake — the moral is that Diana can’t control herself the same as everyone feared.

The emotional conflict of Dead Earth turns on Diana’s new friendship with a young woman, Dee, and her embattled town, whom Diana tries to take to refuge on Themyscira. When Dee discovers Diana’s role in the destruction, she loses faith — loses faith in her “god” or her “leader,” as it were — and Diana must try in win that back. These themes are certainly relatable — loss of faith in one’s government, one’s family, etc. — and on their face make for an enjoyable story. That’s not even wholly that far from Kingdom Come necessarily; the difference here is not the theme of loss of faith or even the heroes “betraying” mankind, but that the fault here is that DC’s top tier heroine can’t control her own reactions.

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I also liked that Daniel Warren Johnson posits Diana as kind of an Aquaman-type figure in Wonder Woman: Dead Earth, caught between her two “people,” mankind and the Amazons. Though we sometimes see Diana having to side with the Amazons or “man’s world” in a conflict, I think it’s rare that we see Diana hunted by both sides as we do here, in what reminds me more of an Aquaman: Throne of Atlantis kind of plot. Which is to say, I think Johnson has a unique conception of Wonder Woman here and page-to-page writes her well; I would read a sequel to Dead Earth if one was ever in the offing. But the implications of what Johnson sets up for Wonder Woman’s powers seem clearly troublesome, and it surprises me frankly that no one had a rethink about it before it went forward.

Comments ( 3 )

  1. This didn't bother me since I've read it, but you may want to include a spoiler warning for Last Knight on Earth (just in case).

  2. Might be interpreted as a cautionary tale. I don’t think anyone has ever really set her up to be so powerful. Seems like a clever way to say not only is she better than Superman, we should be grateful that she doesn’t operate as such. And as such, her restraint is all the more admirable, “shackled” or otherwise. So your criticism intrigued me. There was very little chatter about Dead Earth. Now I know a little more.


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