Thursday, February 21, 2008

At last, here's the long-awaited (by some, certainly by me) reprint collection of the "Diana Prince" period of Wonder Woman. It's a collection of comics which I completely ignored when I was a kid. It's not that I was especially disinclined to like Wonder Woman, far from it- although I've never really been what you could call a big fan of the character, as I've stated many times, I used to own a handful of issues when I was growing up- including many of the retro-style Kanigher/Andru efforts and strangely enough, the single issue that came out just prior to this "new direction". And all things considered, especially given that this is stodgy, conservative 1960's DC we're talking about, it was a shocking and unprecedented direction indeed- and this collection of an obscure time in a flagship character's history is long overdue.

Look, I'll say right up front that for content, I'm giving this, the DIANA PRINCE-WONDER WOMAN TP VOL 01: a C+ - but don't let that give you pause if you're considering buying; it's deeply flawed and probably not meant to stand up to this sort of scrutiny, but it's still vital and imaginative and very much of its time. Very much. It's a mishmash of any number of early-mid 60's pop culture touchstones; spy films like the Matt Helm and Flint series and of course James Bond, TV action series such as Honey West, Danger Man, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which it reminds me of more than anything; Swinging London and its mod fashions, biker flicks, hippies, romance comics, superhero comics, of course- all are represented in different degrees. At some point, it seems, sales figures caused the decision makers at DC at the time to consider doing something different with the even-then venerable Wonder Woman character; the freewheeling lunacy and the subsequent retro approaches of Kanigher and Andru had run their respective courses. Inspired, no doubt, by the still-popular superspy trend, the decision was made to depower Wondy and recast her as a Diana Rigg/Emma Peel-style adventurer. Scripting would be pre-Green Lantern/Green Arrow Dennis O'Neil, and co-plotting and art duties would be assumed by Mike (Justice League) Sekowsky. OK, so far so good- O'Neil was an up-and-comer, and Sekowsky's idiosyncratic style lended itself well to drawing females and action. The first issue in which this change took effect, #178, was a testing-the-waters-type tale in which Steve Trevor gets framed for murder and WW has to go undercover in Hippie-land (shades of Brother Power the Geek!) to clear his name. To make matters worse, it's her own testimony that incriminates the Colonel. So after about two panels' worth of weeping, she realizes in order to achieve her goal, the previously straight-laced and buttoned-down career military gal Diana must get a fashion makeover, which she pursues with gusto, having a wonderful time and apparently forgetting all about her incarcerated lover. Not to worry, though, after a page or so of Diana modeling the latest two-years-late ginchy fashion, she goes on the trail and eventually finds the real killer, and is comfortably snuggling with Steve at the end, dressed in full Amazon regalia aka the star-spangled bathing suit. However, Trevor can't help but ponder how attractive Diana Prince was in her new look, the heel, and thus the stage is set. They commit to the premise for real in #179, in which it's revealed that Paradise Island is running out of the magic or power of the gods, or whatever sustains the Amazons and their abilities in our world, and must relocate to a different dimension to recharge their batteries, in a manner of speaking. Diana is forced to choose to go with them, or stay in our world- a decision that is made more difficult by Steve Trevor. Seems once again Steve has gotten in trouble, this time the result of a secret undercover government mission which has caused him to be considered a spy and go on the lam. Of course, Diana doesn't know that this is all a setup, so she feels she has to come through for her man once more and decides to stay put, thus ensuring that she will no longer have her Amazonian abilities. For some reason, which if it was explained I missed it, she also loses her job with the US Army, and finds herself bereft of boyfriend, powerless, and out of work. She decides to set up a boutique, her love of kicky clothes being well-documented last issue, and the means to clear Steve comes along next via an encounter with an elderly Chinese gentleman named I Ching, who trains her in the martial arts and recruits her in the battle against Dr. Evil a new menace, "Dr. Cyber". The next few issues are spent tracking down and facing off with the sexy and quite female doctor (who resembles a younger Elizabeth Taylor) and her seemingly limitless group of equally sexy and quite female minions, in settings as diverse as vast underwater lairs and fake Swiss villages. These issues maintain a solid kind of B-movie In Like Flint sort of action-thriller pace, combined with standard "comic booky" plot twists.

But then, we get a real left-field curve- O'Neil moves on and Sekowsky takes over on both scripting and art duties, and suddenly, and I do mean suddenly- it's like one panel Diana is weeping over a betrayal (more on that later) and the next she's being visited by one of her Amazon sisters, who's there to call her back to Paradise Island for some out-of-the-blue mythological adventure, to do battle with her grandfather Ares. After one acclimates to the abrupt shift in tone, it's actually a pretty good adventure saga- Ares has designs on conquering first Paradise Island, then the other dimensions, and has placed a spell on his main obstacle, Diana's mother Hippolyta, to further his goals- he seeks the secret of dimensional travel and she won't give it to him, so he's had his witchy woman associate to place her in a state of perpetual nightmare-plagued sleep. He now wants the secret from Diana, but after tearful deliberation she decides not to gove it to him and fight instead. She rallies the troops, and gets them to try and hold off Ares and his army so she can recruit (and this is where it really gets nuts) the likes of King Arthur and Lancelot, Sigfried, and other legendary heroes to aid her and her sisters. They've become bitter and lazy, however, and won't help- but then Valkyries arrive and join forces with the Amazons, and we get the battle royale conclusion, which features a few twists before it's done. All things considered, this is good heroic fantasy, especially for a late 60's DC comic, and showed that Sekowsky had some game. This is where the collection ends, however, and judging from the covers to subsequent issues, to be collected in volume 2 I'm assuming (if sales warrant, of course), he went back to the spy game in short order.

Of course, regardless of the genres involved, there are some nits to pick and more than a few logic gaps- for example, how did the Amazons retain their abilities when the male I Ching came over with Diana and set foot on the island? And why did Diana lose her military intelligence job in the first place- it was Trevor that had to go on the lam, and since the government set it up in the first place it's far likelier that she would have just been reassigned! But, as it usually is with DC books from this period, sometimes it's best not to think about them too much and go with the flow. Really, the most troubling thing about the stories is the grating sexism that is rampant herein, especially (oddly enough) in the issues O'Neil scripted.

Introduced in his run were supporting characters like PI Tim Trench, who constantly sports sexist attitudes and spouts belittling bromides at her, striving, I'm sure, for a Lee Marvin-in-The Killers character-type vibe but it's kinda dismaying to read almost 40 years later, when we know better. And I have to believe O'Neil knew better then too- this was, after all, the man who gave us the aforementioned socially questioning Green Lantern/Green Arrow as well as one of the first attempts to give a real depth to the Catwoman's characterization. But much of this is dire. Diana, newly stripped of her powers, is endlessly thinking to us, the readers, how "frightened" she is to be facing danger in this new state. And sure, that's believable up to a point but it's played up way too much. The lead story in this collection, with a submissive Diana/WW curling up next to her somewhat boorish boyfriend at the end when all has been put right again, also raises eyebrows. After Steve is eliminated from the picture later on, Diana is also constantly falling in love with the likes of Trench and at least one other supporting character (not I Ching, of course- he's old! Gasp!), and is constantly weeping, distraught and despairing that she has been deceived and will never be happy and in love, just like in the pages of one of DC's romance comics of the time. Despite the fact that the creators have set Diana up to be a kick-ass, no-nonsense, capable heroine they were constantly undermining that image in order to soften her up for the sensibilities of the time, and perhaps DC's editors as well. It's especially glaring when one considers that powers or no powers, she's stood toe-to-toe with the Justice League and has faced extraordinary menaces of all types, not to mention that she is still an Amazonian princess, and it just plain old rings false that she would be as timid as she's portrayed...especially early on. There's subtle racism as well in the portrayal of I Ching; of course he's a venerable martial arts master; of course he's able to spout Confucius-style wisdom at the drop of a hat; of course his speech is often written in that pidgin Engrish style, for example "Soft emotions cloud intellect! Grieve later if you must!". But to their credit, O'Neil and Sekowsky also portray Ching as possessing a sly sense of humor and a steadfast perseverance in the face of adversity, and he's always got Diana's back, so after a while he won me over to the point that I wound up liking him quite a bit. He reminds me of another questionable Asian mentor portrayal, Joel Grey's Chiun in the Remo Williams film. He was about as Asian as Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he's a good enough actor to where his portrayal was clever and witty, and wound up being a highlight of that uneven movie.

Artwise, let's face it- Sekowsky's style is an acquired taste, even back in his Justice League salad days. He was a solid layout/storytelling guy, and could draw beautiful women with the best of them, but it's always come down to the fact that his, shall we say, adventurously contorted figure drawings made his work simultaneously distinctive and yet somewhat offputting. Fortunately, he was as at home with the fantastical mythological adventures as he was the Bond-movie superspy stuff, and with the help of Dick Giordano's sympathetic inks on a few of these stories, he kept the events moving along at a very smooth clip. This isn't a dull-looking collection by any means.

So that's what you're getting into when you step into this twenty dollar time capsule ($14 at right now!) and revisit one of the oddest chapters in Wonder Woman's long history. Me, I like the idea a bit more than I like the execution; I wish that O'Neil and Sekowsky's heads had been in a bit different place when they were writing this stuff, but it's novel and fun when it's not making my eyebrow raise. To some, seeing Diana as a martial arts adventurer with no Egg Fus, Glops or Centipedes in sight might more than compensate for the fact that much of the characterization is not favorable to the perception of her as a confident, self-sufficient female. Regardless, I'm happy to finally have the chance to decide for myself. It's a handsome presentation and I for one am happy that it wasn't relegated to the B&W Showcase Presents ghetto. Sure, I gave it a C+ for content, but overall I'm thinking B-. I sincerely hope to see a volume 2 very soon.

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