Thursday, 19 May 2011

Comic Review - Gail Simone's Wonder Woman

So I'm finished with Gail Simone's highly acclaimed run on Wonder Woman. First impressions? Well, I'm rather ambivalent to be honest. After the already reviewed The Circle, her run consist of the following collections: End of the Earth, Rise of the Olympian, Warkiller and Contagion. Instead of commenting on them all individually, I am going to give a perspective on the whole series. I'll white out any spoilers.

Wonder Woman, the only daughter of the Amazonians, was charged to bring peace to the land of the mortals. Years, and many super villains, later we find her working as a government spy and still struggling to bring peace to the world. There's a romance blossoming between her and her partner agent (codenamed Nemesis for some silly reason), and following a violent struggle during which the Amazons attacked America, all the Amazons have been banished by queen Hippolayata from Thymscira. Well, almost all, as we saw in The Circle. The Greek gods seem to be missing, too.

This is the platform Simone has to work with, and over the course of the run she implements many shifts in the status-quo. These changes creep in slowly as the story dictates, but their raminfications are never, I felt, really dealt with. For, although this is very much an introspectively focussed comic, the pace is blistering and I'm sure the amount of fights works out at about one per issue. So despite a more heavy emotional focus, this is a fast paced comic with lots of action and super heroics. Sounds great, right?

Well, yes and no. This attempt to marry the more enjoyable parts of the form (fast paced super heroics) with a more character focussed core is very much applaudable on paper, but never quite works in execution. Rather than marrying the two aspects, Simone makes the action subordinate to the internal stuff: Wondy can win any battle if she just sorts out her self-esteem issues. The physical threat to Wondy is rarely credible, and she loses so rarely that there is little here to dissuade the notion. As a result it takes much of the tension out of the action: putting something so de-emphasised right in the spotlight also means that the comic isn't developing it's stronger facets. I didn't really have a problem with this at first, but when she just kept winning it started feeling repetitive too.

For me, this problem really kicked in around the third volume. During the second she kills what is meant to be the devil without much difficulty, and that kinda worried me, but I was willing to role with it. In the third she meets a creature named Genocide - said to be part God - that tears her a new one and steals her lasso. It was a great twist: Wondy had been brought low and her iconic weapon had been taken from her. It really seemed to raise the stakes, and was a great moment. Problematically, however, on her way to the hospital she gets up and declares herself ready to fight again. She gets her best friend and Wonder Girl with her, changes clothes and she's fine again. When such a devastating beatdown can be cancelled out by five minutes of rest, it really devalues any injuries Wondy receives. She then fights with Genocide - her and her friends - to a standstill before he blows up the building and escapes. She then beats the Cheetah (she's as fast as the flash!) just afterwards. I realise that, in their own comic, heroes are always going to be overpowered, but after this series of events and Wondy's single handed beating of Genocide after this, again without any medical attention, the comic ceased to have any real threats. It might as well have been called "Wonder Woman Wins". Oh, she also kills the god Ares with one hit.

The real problem here, is that by proliferating the comic with action, action becomes a very big part of the comic. Simone relies on action, perhaps out of a fear that comic fans wouldn't read something more internally focussed, but undercuts the action all the same.

In my review of The Circle I speculated as to why Wonder Woman is not so popular as her contemporaries. I forgot to mention the overwhelmingly male audience in comics, and her being female somehow. This comic, however, suggests another alternative: Wonder Woman is a boring character. Simone's run has been praised as capturing perfectly who Wondy is, and I can see that. She pays a lot of attention to clearly laying out Diana's personality and beliefs, as well as her fighting abilities. Simone has a very strong and plausible idea of who Wondy is, and it's very boring.

Wondy spends all her time thinking about how good other people are, or how to save people. She embodies a very vague selflessness, and although Simone does well with what she has to work with, leading to a few very nice moments, she's still stuck with a character who seems to lack any real flaws. There's just something so vague and wishy-washy about the character that fails to be compelling. Maybe she is meant to be more than human, more perfect, but that doesn't make it any more fun to read.

Then there's the gender issue I had with it. In Wonder Woman, the stories are always going to be more female orientated. Quite right too; comics are far too male dominated and mysogynistic currently. The problem here, is that Simone seems to have done the opposite. Men in this are all a bit shit. Some of them kinda come good later, but all of them exist as hugely inferior to the women characters, or to be victims of the female characters. I have no problem with female characters taking the dominant roles in comic books, but doing what men too often do with women isn't a good idea. Towards the end the balance shifts to a happier midpoint where some male characters have a degree of competence, but that still doesn't change the annoyingness of what went before.

One thing that really stuck out was the characterisation of a scientist called Dr Morrow. I'd only encountered him once before, in 52, where he was an imposing and charasmatic character. A dark genius, arrogant and conceited. He was a very strong and imposing presence - of all the mad scientists, he was the most powerful and imposing one. Here he isn't even the same character. Sure, he looks the same and still builds evil androids, but in this he spends his whole time cringing and grovelling. I'm all for reinterpreting characters, but one of these comics seemed to have just gotten it wrong. Not exactly a criticism, I suppose, but definitely a point of confusion.

The pace that everything unravels at hurts the stories too. The inner turmoils are rarely given time to breathe, and the mysteries are not given enough of a build-up. There were a few reveals in there that I hadn't even realised were meant to be mysteries. Not in the good "oh, that makes so much sense in retrospect" either. Just underdeveloped. It means that certainly schemes end up feeling contrived and half-baked. A lot of cool concepts and characters do go to waste. My frustration at Kane Milohai's death, after a fight that got all of four panels, was really quite pronounced. I'd have loved to have found out more and explored the ideas around him, and the whole hawaiian pantheon.

I've been very negative so far, so perhaps I should look into the positives:

Her characterisation is very good. The villains are crafty and intelligent, but often well developed and complex. Generally they have understandable motivations, although she's not above throwing in a bit of ol' fashioned evil for the sake of evil too. Alkyone is a very well developed villain, and Achilles is an interestingly balanced character, although, like Diana, he comes across as rather wishy-washy. As I said before, the strongest part of her charaterisation of Wondy is the representation of her foreigness. She makes sure and contextualise everything with her Amazonian upbringing.

Although underdeveloped at times, her plotting shows a practised hand too. She uses chekhovs guns effectively, builds a few very nice climaxes and  is subtle in much of her foreshadowing. The pace of the stories may cause problems, but it also ensures the story never lingers or drags and retains a strong sense of momentum. The run does seem to just come to a very sudden, and unfinished feeling, end however, suggesting that her run was cut short.

By trying to have a more internal focus, Simone is doing something fairly original in comics too. She's trying to add depth, and make action an expression of emotional struggles, none of which are a bad idea. There is an ambitiousness here, and a depth of writing that I'm sure is not all that common. For this, Simone's work certainly deserves praise.

Whilst I've a lot more bad to say about this series than good, I'm still not sure I can say I dislike it. It doesn't do much clearly wrong: the gender issues is just as present most other places, the internal focus is an attempt to add depth and she can only work within the confines of the Wonder Woman character. Really, what tips it is just how untouchable Diana is as a character: all of her physical struggles she is never really in great danger, and all of her emotional ones are so ridiculously selfless that they come out as rather insipid. Perhaps it's that all of her internal struggles are narrated straight at us. Perhaps, if the internal struggles had bee implied more than told this comic would have been a much stronger one.

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