Monday, August 01, 2005

Who's that Girl? Part 1: The "New" Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman v. 1 #178 - 204

It may seem that this is an odd place to start a commentary on Wonder Woman volume 1, but when I first wrote this I hadn't actually intended to do more than review this particular period in the life of the amazon princess. Somehow I just got drawn in...

To fully understand the changes made to Wonder Woman you really need to see what it was like prior to #178. Wonder Woman seems to have been stuck in a Silver Age rut of formulaic stories that include a tame romance with Steve Trevor that never goes beyond a basic kiss, and fantastic plots similar to those found in other DC comics of the time. The issues preceding the revamp are tired and lack the charm found in other DC comics of the period, or even earlier issues of WW. Perhaps writer/editor Robert Kanigher was just running out of ways to say the same old thing, having been writing the title for well over 10 years by this point.

He had tried something of a revamp, himself, in 1965. In Wonder Woman #158 he goes so far as to write himself into the story, summoning the entire cast of the comic into his office to inform them that they are almost all being retired in favor of a “new look” for Wonder Woman, a retro-Golden Age format. After 5 issues the retro look is dropped and we are back to business as before but slightly more bland for having lost a lot of the supporting cast, and the continuity is so confused that even Kanigher can't seem to keep straight what job Diana Prince has and what time period the story is set in.

First order of business for the new team of Jack Miller (editor), Denny O'Neil (writer) and Mike Sekowsky (penciller) was to give Wonder Woman a new hip wardrobe, so in #178 when Steve Trevor is convicted of murder, she goes undercover to locate the missing witness who will prove his innocence. This requires her to get trendy new clothes in order to blend in, of course.

Next to go were her powers, costume, and boyfriend. #179 opens with Steve Trevor going undercover, posing as a traitor in order to get in with new mystery archvillain Dr. Cyber. Remember this is Steve Trevor, high profile hero and well known associate of Wonder Woman, so he's a rather unlikely candidate for the role. He is also more than a little incompetent at it, as he decides to go rogue inside a military base, so he spends the first scene being shot at and jumping through windows.

Obviously when Diana Prince hears about this her first instinct is to rush to his aid (which would have blown his cover), but it is at that moment that she is summoned home to Paradise Island where her mother tells her that after ten thousand years the Amazons must leave Earth and they are in a bit of a hurry so Diana must choose to go with them or stay alone right this minute. Of course she opts to stay and for reasons unexplained this means she must give up her powers and costume, not to mention any fighting skills she previously possessed.

She returns to America and is now apparently homeless and jobless (1), and although she worries that "For the first time in my life I'm faced with practical problems -- like finding a place to live, and earning money for food." these are clearly the worries of a poor little rich girl who feels she is destitute because she can only afford a "cheap" apartment in a high class area along with a shop that she remodels into a clothes boutique which she hardly ever bothers to open (2) and an unlimited expense account for world travel and clothes. Almost immediately she stumbles over an orange skinned Mr. Miyagi type with the unlikely name of I Ching, and in less time than it takes to say "I can do Kung Fu" she is a mistress of the martial arts.

Steve then reappears badly wounded, mysteriously having located her new address even though they have had no communication since before she moved. Apparently Dr. Cyber wasn't convinced by his pretending to have gone bad, either. He then conveniently slips into a coma, but even this was not enough as he is awakened briefly in the next issue just long enough to get shot dead, as new chum private detective Tim Trench is introduced.

We also finally get to meet Doctor Cyber, a female Bond villain who says things like "You are extremely tough, Mr. Trench - and in your own way, intelligent. It is a pity you must die." and who staffs her secret undersea base entirely with hot chicks.

After several issues of James Bond adventuring Mike Sekowsky takes over as editor/writer and penciller, immediately ditching Tim Trench and then after a very brief pause for Diana to spend half a page working in her boutique takes an odd step back from the new style and has her recalled to Paradise Island (3) which has been invaded by the god Mars who wants to learn the secret of dimensional travel so he can invade Earth (4). Deciding to bring in reinforcements to help, and instead of calling her JLA buddies or even staying within her own mythology, she travels through time and space to recruit King Arthur, Roland, and Seigfried, but they refuse and so she has to make do with a bunch of valkyries. And since it's her comic they win the day and Mars gives up and goes home.

After pitched battles with the god of war and James Bond type adventures all over the world, it seems a little bizarre to find that next issue Diana seems almost helpless against the bullying of three local hippies, and it's only due to the help of the mysterious Tony Petrucci that she is able to defeat them. I Ching then turns up again in time to defeat the witch Morganna, which is just as well since Diana can't even beat her without her magic. And then it's back to jet setting around the world again fighting Doctor Cyber. Cyber is accidentally hit with hot coals during this next escapade and subsequently does a kind of cut-price Doctor Doom, eventually even wearing a metal mask.

We then get a little political as Diana liberates a chinese village from the evil government who are going to force them all to work down the mines, escaping to Hong Kong on a Mississippi river boat. The less said about this one the better.

Back home, Diana is moping about so I Ching suggests she go visit her mom. As if by magic an amazon appears to take her home, but she dials the wrong address or something because they end up in the wrong fantasy world and Diana has to lead an army to overthrow an evil queen before Hippolyte arrives to pick her up.

Following this we get several self contained stories including a version of The Prisoner of Zenda, a haunted house, and a bit more spy stuff. And that's the end of the all singing, all dancing Mike Sekowsky show. I don't know what happened at this point but we get two issues of reprints (5) and then Denny O'Neil is back as writer and editor with a convoluted story that leads into Wonder Woman #200 and another confrontation with Doctor Cyber, who is now as mad as a balloon.

Issue #201 signals the beginning of the end of the new era as Diana finally runs out of cash and has to sell her boutique in order to pay for plane fare to Tibet for another adventure. She bumps into Catwoman (6) and somewhat late in the day I Ching remembers that the gem they are after has magical properties that will cause them to have a crossover with Fafhed and the Grey Mouser.

#203 is the last of the "new" series, and the only one that actually has any feminist message. This is a lot better than I remembered, and writer Samuel R. Delany plays with "women's lib" concepts to the point where by the end you are not entirely sure whether he is for or against. The cover is wonderfully wrongheaded - the "Special! Women's Lib issue" banner surmounts a classic bondage image. But at least we don't have Diana in a skimpy corset complaining that she's being treated as a sex object.

And then something curious happens. 203 ends with a minor cliffhanger and a caption saying "What will Diana do now? Don't miss next issue." and a newly titled letters page which is clearly intended to reflect the current style. Apparently the follow up story was proposed but it never saw print.

Instead, Wonder Woman #204 sees Robert Kanigher return as editor and writer. He must have really hated the "new" Wonder Woman. He immediately has a random sniper kill off I Ching, has Diana lose her memory of everything other than how to fly a jet, and returns her to Paradise Island which is now just off the coast of America and not in another dimension. Queen Hippolyte downloads an edited version of her origin into her head that includes no mention of the previous 5 years of continuity and dresses her in a slightly restyled version of her old costume before packing her off to America in a submarine. Wandering past the UN building she is offered a job as a translator and an apartment share with two other girls. And with that the new era is over and Wonder Woman is once more dressing in spandex and getting tied to missiles.

Although this period is often seen as "feminist" and female empowering, in fact the women's lib aspect really only occurs in one issue. This era is really more about revamping the title into a jet-setting James Bond/Man From Uncle style. While it does provide a fresh break from the rut the title was stuck in, it fails on many levels and succeeds on few: on the plus side the martial arts skills used are initially portrayed quite realistically, which is good since the art fails to deliver on almost any other level, and is in no way helped by some garish coloring.

The writing is uniformly bad, with many important details glossed over or plain ignored, and basic logic is rarely present. Much of the new style is derivative of popular fiction of the time, and even the attempt to make Diana part of the "hip" culture is continually shot down by her own thoughts about how uncomfortable she is with it. Continuity is entirely out the window and Robert Kanigher's dismissal of everything that happened while he was off the book is just shameful.

If there is one thing this period demonstrates, it is that writers should not be their own editors.

Coming soon: Part 2 - What Diana Did Next: the New Original Wonder Woman


1. It's not mentioned when or why she left the army.

2. She doesn't get any employees until #185

3. With I Ching in tow. Apparently the law against allowing men to set foot on Paradise Island doesn't extend to little orange orientals named after methods of divination.

4. Never a problem for him before or since.

5. Which suggests that something was not right.

6. Well it's supposed to be Catwoman but she looks nothing like any version I've ever seen anywhere else.


Harvey Jerkwater said...

"And with that the new era is over and Wonder Woman is once more dressing in spandex and getting tied to missiles."

Man, replace "Wonder Woman" with "Harvey Jerkwater" and you've got the story of my life.

Pity these issues weren't better. I'd still like to read them, if only for historical curiosity. Imagine if DC put 'em out in that "Showcase Presents" format?

Come to think of it, if (or more accurately, when) DC puts out a "Showcase Presents" for Wonder Woman, what would be the best run to include?

Marionette said...

If they do a Showcase collection I expect they will start at the beginning of the silver age, as they've done with other titles. With Wonder Woman my bet is on starting with #97 as it's the first issue with the art team that carried her through the 60's and also an origin story.

Anonymous said...

The story with the steamboat is rather obviously ripped off from a John Wayne movie with the same plotline. And the movie was "based on a true story."

Scott said...

I disagree with your assessments for the most part, but enjoyed reading your thoughts. I love the Mike Sekowsky period of Wonder Woman, both for the art and for the way he showed she could be used in any type of story. I wish that subsequent writers had been willing to give her adventures a bit more variety.

Two additional comments:

1) The Catwoman costume was a relatively short-lived one, but it also appeared in a couple of Batman issues in the 1970s (I want to say Batman 214 and 256, but I'm not sure). I think it was designed by Frank Robbins.

2) Another item of note about Kanigher's return issue is that he kills off a never before seen character called something Cottonman, who is a thinly-veiled dig at(or nod to, but I'm betting it's a dig) Dorothy Woolfolk, who I think edited the reprint issues. Woolfolk did some other editing for DC over the years.