“Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” — William Moulton Marston
The world needs Wonder Woman. It was as true when psychologist William Moulton Marston said those words and created the well-loved Amazon in 1941 as it is now. For more than 70 years, second only to the Batman and Superman in longevity, Princess Diana has remained the bedrock definition of “super heroine.”
But what’s historical importance doesn’t always translate to superlative comic stories. Think about all the iconic Superman and Batman tales that have seen print: Superman For All Seasons, All-Star Superman, Superman: Birthright, Superman: Red Son, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns… The list goes on and on and on, but for Wonder Woman, that catalog is much smaller. Greg Rucka and Gail Simone have done amazing work to be sure — and Elseworld titles like Kingdom Come have also shown Diana in compelling conflicts —but Wonder Woman has rarely occupied stories that define the character.
Until now, that is. This week Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang finished their 3-year, 35-issue epic of the New 52’s Wonder Woman, finally giving the most famous Amazonian the timeless story she’s always deserved. Because as much as Marston would have hoped, Wonder Woman didn’t go on to rule the world. For six years, until his death in 1947, Marston’s Wonder Woman was a radical departure from male-dominated superhero comics. Like Superman, Wonder Woman stands for truth and justice. But unlike the galaxy’s biggest boy scout, Diana persevered with an underlying, anti-patriarchal sexual dominance. Wrist cuffs, truth-inducing lassos, continuous bondage — all that was missing was leather and latex.
Even if DC initially pulled back on the domination subtext, the publisher could never remove her identity as an outsider, an warrior woman living on the island Themyscira, isolated from the rest of the world. After joining the ranks of The Justice League and bonding with buff military dudes, Azzarello returned Diana to her origins, spinning an epic tale of Greek mythology for the modern age, separate from the DC Universe.
The 100 Bullets and Hellblazer scribe began his run by drastically altering Wonder Woman’s origin story. No longer was the heroin sculpted from clay; that was just a lie to protect Diana from the truth that she was Zeus’ daughter. When this retco came to light, some readers had the same reaction as Diana — that Wonder Woman was no longer “special.” But the “made from clay” origin story isn’t what makes Wonder Woman; if anything, it just makes her alien and unrelatable. These family histrionics imbue Diana with more empathy and relatability, allowing her to identify on a deeper level with her ragtag group of mortals and demigods.
The core of classic Greek mythology can be described as a family soap opera, filled with lies, murder, and infidelity. It’s in casting this daytime TV drama that Azzarello’s narrative muscles go to work. The entire plot hinges on a prophecy that the last heir of Zeus, who’s mysteriously gone MIA, will usurp Olympus. Cue all the gods losing their shit, as some dream up a two-for-one murder special, one part infanticide, one part fratricide, when one of Zeus’ romantic flings bears fruit in the womb of a woman in rural Virginia. Wonder Woman, recently learning of her own godly origins, defends her new baby brother.
Let’s get this out of the way: Gods can be boring…really boring. They usually embody an emotion or idea, whether it’s lust or war, and often read like superficial caricatures of that one trait. This has held constant since Homer spun some yarn about a place called Troy. But Wonder Woman makes you love, hate, and celebrate this continuously feuding pantheon, while still preserving the stubbornness and hubris that’s always filled classical myth and legend.
Wonder Woman’s relationship with the God of War is a perfect example. Ares is the Mr. Miyagi to Diana’s Karate Kid. Azzarello first introduces War dressed like a Spartan, the warrior race of ancient Greece. Later, after (Spoiler Alert) the pair’s falling out, he becomes an old frail man sipping coffee on a cafe patio as a suicide bomber blows up half a city block. His eyes look on without expression. He walks with torn, battered feet, leaving crimson footprints wherever he goes. He’s worn-out. He’s tired. Because being the God of War is a curse, and it’s a curse that Wonder Woman assumes as one of the giant turning points in the title.
This same level of character-building applies across the residents of Olympus, whether it’s the mischievous Hermes, a scheming Apollo, or a repentant Hera. The story traverses among the cosmic and the classic, the mortal and the immortal. Along the way, readers learn about Wonder Woman through her friends and enemies as much as through the Princess herself.
Azzarello’s story rediscovers Wonder Woman’s identity on a storytelling and meta-narrative level. What does Wonder Woman mean to the DC universe, or even modern fiction? Is she a feminist symbol? A valiant outsider? The Last Amazon? A caring friend? A powerful warrior? Or a God of Olympus? Exploring those questions is why Azzarello’s 35 issues of Wonder Woman will be remembered. As Diana learns about herself, so do we. In the end, she embodies all of these roles in certain ways. That’s what makes this run so great, because, like all of us, discovering who you are is never easy — even if you’re an Amazonian demigod princess with superpowers.
Next month, two new creators’ names will appear on the cover of Wonder Woman. Meredith and David Finch are a husband/wife creative team, much like creator Marston and his wife Elizabeth, who actually suggested the character be female. Although this is a nice little “coming full circle” moment, hopefully the new guard will embrace what Azzarello and Chiang have built while still forging their own path. As Azzarello said in a DC All-Access interview earlier this year, “Whoever comes in next, I want them to feel like they had the same kind of freedom that I did. We were laying the groundwork. Here’s the world. Now go play with it.”
Darren Orf is a comics contributor with Paste. You can find his ramblings on technology over at Gizmodo.
Whether that world will stand or crumble is hard to stay, but Azzarello’s Amazon will be a lasting example of why Wonder Woman really should rule the world.