Friday, July 19, 2024

Wonder Woman’s “Year One” Captures the Mythic and the Heroic Together

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Up until now, the “Year One” arc of Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman has had the basic elements of setup.  Introducing Diana to the characters that will form her supporting cast, establishing what powers she does or does not have in this continuity, laying out the field of conflict, and so on.  Very enjoyable in its own right (In fact, personally one my favorite comics that I’m reading right now), but it has clearly all been building towards something.

Issue #14, the final installment of “Year One”, is exactly what it has all been building towards.

The issue starts immediately with action, building off of the abrupt cliffhanger that closed #12: The sudden arrival of Ares, God of War, right in the midst of the unexpected and unprepared main cast.  The first panel is almost a masterpiece in and of itself, and I could make an article going over all the ways that this one shot includes so much information.  Since if I did that I wouldn’t have any room left for the rest of the issue, let’s just hit the highlights:

Immediate is the fact that at the top of the panel, and therefore the very first part of the image that we (The reader) will take in given the top-down nature of comics, is Wonder Woman leaping into action. There is no indication that we have skipped over some great length of time since the ending to the previous issue; this is right after Ares has appeared, and Diana is charging straight at him because she sees that he is holding Steve Trevor by the throat. Remember, Diana has been raised with all religious deference for the Greek gods—to her they are the final arbiters of morality and fate and destiny and whatever else you want to name, and yet she still does not hesitate one iota when she sees a friend in danger. She does not care that this is a being she has been taught to worship, and she does not care that he is probably more physically powerful than she is, all she cares about is helping a friend in danger. This says everything you need to know about how she lives her life.

Then there is the way the shot is staged: our view is over the back of Ares’s head, seeing through the horns on his helmet. The horns themselves frame Diana’s figure, and come to a stop immediately surrounding her body.  This shows that Ares’s focus is entirely on her, she is the only thing there that Ares cares about. Steve and Etta Candy, the purely mortal people present, are both outside the frame, and thus outside Ares’s attention even though Ares is physically touching Steve. Barbara Ann Minerva, however, is within the horn frame, even though she is not in the focus point. Unlike Etta and Steve, Barbara has been studying the mythology and history of the Amazons for years, and her standalone issue showed that she had once managed to make some sort of contact with the twisted tree that serves as the symbol of the Sear group. So, though she is not the subject of his attention, she is still in Ares’s field since she has already touched the world of myth and gods before.

Past the staging, it shows how each of the humans is dealing with this new supernatural world and the immediate situation. Steve’s expression is shock and fear, perfectly appropriate when a giant monster is holding you suspended by your throat. Etta’s expression is slightly less shocked, but infinitely more unnerved; she is seeing something that she did not believe existed until now, a literal deity from a pantheon long since past its time, and she is grappling with the implications. Barbara’s is the most telling: She is intrigued, staring directly at Ares and even adjusting her glasses so that she can get a better look.  The later-time story in “The Lies” shows that Barbara will eventually succumb to dark powers in her quest for supernatural knowledge and experience, and this ties it together perfectly: Even back at this time she is more attracted to dangerous power than she is afraid of it, which will eventually lead to her curse.

And this is all in the first panel, not even the entire first page.  Nicola Scott, who did the art of the issue, deserves more praise than I can ever give her for this perfect setup.  After this immediate first panel we get into the fight between Diana and Ares, and it is told in full form.

I had mentioned in my review of Issue #13 that it seemed to forget that Diana was the star of the series, and switched over to Steve Trevor as the Hero.  In their attempts to show that Steve has his own skills and abilities, they wound up denigrating Diana too much. In this issue they find the right balance, highlighted in the opening of the fight. Steve is shown struggling against Ares’s grip, even pulling a knife from who-knows-where and plunging it into Ares’s arm (it shatters, of course).  This emphasizes that he is participating, that he is not just passively waiting to be rescued, but the very nature of the threat—the literal God of War—means that his efforts cannot accomplish much.  It does not say “Look how weak this man is”, it says “Look at his struggle even though his enemy is too powerful”, and was the kind of blending that the previous issue needed.  Diana, in turn, bowls Ares over because she has been granted strength and speed and powers by other gods as powerful as him.

As the fight progresses, we learn that Ares is here because he is trying to find the location of Themyscira, which has been hidden from him for millennia. He first tries to take it from Steve’s mind (Presumably why Ares had grabbed him when he first arrived), and then from Diana’s mind when Steve does not have the knowledge. However, though he would probably be able to overwhelm her in a no-holds-barred full fight—he is the God of War after all—Ares’s strength is not so great that he can easily or quickly toss aside Diana on a whim.  Instead, Diana offers herself, supplicates before him in order to plead for the lives of her new friends and the world as a whole.

She offers Ares the location of Themyscira in trade.

Fortunately for the Amazons, and to Ares’s great surprise, Diana does not have the knowledge he seeks.  Her sacrifice when she left the island, which has been explored in heartbreaking detail in the “The Lies” arc, was to never return. She does not even know how to find the island anymore. And Diana had not said hat she would discover this information for Ares or find a way to get it for him, she specifically said “if it is mind to grant”. This knowledge is no longer hers, and so all Ares’s gets from her is nothing.

That is when the other gods show up. More literal beings from Olympus and Greek mythology. The Patrons of Themyscira, the ones who rule over and protect the Amazons, and who gave Diana her powers, and who can match Ares in power. Who, together with Diana, can more than match this one lone god.

The Patrons share their power with Diana, and join the fray themselves, and together Ares is banished from the field. They know that he will be back eventually, Barbara specifically points out that they would hardly be worthy of the epithet “gods” if they were defeated so easily, but nonetheless, on this day he is vanquished.

Now all they have to worry about are the imminent terrorist attacks by the worldwide Sear network that they had discovered was coming at the end of Issue #12. Fortunately, in the style of all true patrons—whether or not they are divine beings—the gods gave them the information they needed to solve their own problem: the targets of all the disparate Sear groups. Carrying Steve Trevor along in her arms, Wonder Woman travels the world halting the disparate attacks in a four-panel montage before winding up at the United Nations Headquarters Building in New York City. Ultimately they realize that the final gas bomb is not targeting the General Assembly itself, but is instead targeting its school, where the children of all of the diplomats and staff are in attendance..

Naturally, they manage to evacuate the school and delay the Sear group long enough to get the kids out…but not before Diana is exposed to the gas they were planning to release. The insanity inducing gas that forces people to turn on one another in violent, murderous rages that apparently cannot be resisted.

Of course, the designer of this gas never took Wonder Woman into his calculations. Oh, she begins to feel its effects of course, she feels the anger and rage building, but part of Wonder Woman’s core character, part of what makers her her, something so integral that she literally carries it around in her hand, is a basic concept: Truth.

There is an oft-repeated quote of uncertain source that goes “In War, the first casualty is the Truth”. That is an eminent truth of the world, and a direct truth here: people forced into anger, driven into hate, compelled to violence and depravity by malevolent beings beyond their ken. War is literally taking their own truth away from them, but war can be thwarted in turn by an application of the same.

The final page of the issue is a great wrap-up, hilarious and heartwarming together. The four main cast (Diana, Etta, Barbara and Steve) are spending the day out, just casually drinking and having a good time.  It includes another step in the relationship between Etta and Barbara, as when Barbara jokingly accuses Etta of trying to get Diana drunk, Etta explains that she is instead trying to get Barbara drunk (The Tequila Sunrise she gave to Diana is just to keep her entertained). At the end, Steve shows up with a stack of newspapers that have covered the Sear event and explains that they have finally decided on a name for Diana.  When she explains that she already has a name (Obviously), he explains that they have chosen her another one…

This issue was exciting, fun, heartwarming, and generally everything a Wonder Woman comic should be. Not only did it cover the Big Picture points of a fight between Wonder Woman and Ares, but it followed up on the language barrier that had been established in earlier issues. Since Diana is still learning English, and Ares obviously would not deign to speak any language other than his own, it makes sense that they would speak to each other in the language of gods and Amazons. Thus, Barbara actually has to translate what is being said for the benefit of the humans present.

Additionally, in my review of Issue#13 I criticized a panel that had Steve Trevor take of his shirt and rip its cloth into strips as something that was so cluelessly Hyper Masculine that it almost descended into parody, and here they include what clearly is parody.  Same situation (Steve Trevor’s ripped shirt), but completely different tone and framing.

Look at the way that is torn, it is almost exactly the way women’s shirts are torn when the clothing damage is meant to titillate the reader and sexualize their bodies for the male gaze.  Just enough cloth left to cover their chests and avoid a Mature rating, yet hanging off one shoulder to tease that the rest might fall off at any moment.  I’ve seen that same sort of ripped shirt on women a thousand times in comics, and in fact I saw it most recently on Maxima in the webcomic Grrl Power.  Do not get me wrong, I love Grrl Power, which self-admittedly includes plenty of cheesecake, but it is nonetheless a standard technique for showing off women’s bodies and part of widespread objectification.  Here, the shoe is on the other foot, and it is played completely straight.

All told, this issue of Wonder Woman gave us everything we could have hoped for, and everything we needed.

Images courtesy of DC Comics.

Wonder Woman #14

Writer: Greg Rucka

Artist: Nicola Scott

Colors: Romulo Fajardo, Jr.

Cover: Scott & Fajardo Jr.

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