Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman

Andy Mangels is quite possibly the world’s biggest Wonder Woman fan.  He is also a prolific author, having written prose fiction, non-fiction articles & books, and comic books for numerous publishers, among them DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image.  However, until now Mangels has never actually written any Wonder Woman stories.  At long last he can finally cross that off his bucket list with the publication of Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, a six issue miniseries co-published by Dynamite Entertainment and DC Comics.

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The second half of the 1970s was a bit of a watershed moment for women in telefantasy, with two high profile series featuring female leads airing.  Wonder Woman starring the amazing Lynda Carter is rightfully regarded as one of the all time best adaptations of a comic book series for television.  The Bionic Woman may have been a spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, but Jaime Sommers, portrayed by Lindsay Wagner, immediately established herself to be as brave and competent as her male counterpart.

Over the past two years DC has been publishing Wonder Woman ’77, which is set within the television continuity.  Dynamite, meanwhile, has released several Bionic Woman miniseries since 2012.  In retrospect, it was a natural fit to do a comic book series teaming up these two television heroines.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, initially issued as a six issue miniseries, is now collected in trade paperback.  Joining writer Andy Mangels are interior artist Judit Tondora, colorist Roland Pilcz, letterers Tom Orzechowski, Lois Buhalis & Kathryn S. Renta, and cover artist Cat Staggs.  The collected edition features a painted cover by the ever-amazing Alex Ross.

Set in 1977, Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman opens with the government agencies the Inter-Agency Defense Command and the Office of Scientific Intelligence meeting to discuss a new terrorist threat, a sinister cabal known as Castra.  Of course, with the IADC and OSI working together, their two top agents, Diana Prince and Jaime Sommers, are soon paired up.  Jaime very quickly deduces Diana’s secret identity, and before long Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman are fighting side-by-side against the forces of Castra.

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It is eventually revealed that Castra is headed up by some of Diana and Jaime’s old enemies, who have pooled their resources to have another go at the world domination thing.  It’s been a few years since I watched the Wonder Woman show on DVD, and even longer since I saw reruns of The Bionic Woman on TV, so at first I was having some trouble recalling most of the rogues gallery making up Castra’s hierarchy.  Fortunately in issue #3 Mangels has the various ne’er-do-wells recounting their past exploits to one another, complete with footnotes referencing the original television episodes, which helped bring me up to speed.

Mangels clearly possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Wonder Woman.  He includes a great many references to the TV show, as well as working in nods to various characters & concepts from the rich mythology of the comic books.  He does the same for the Bionic Woman, somewhat obliquely referencing a number of episodes from the series.  You can pretty much understand the majority of Mangels’ story without needing to know what he’s specifically referencing.  Having said that, while I was reading went back & forth between Google and Wikipedia in an effort to figure out a number of them.  I later found out that Comic Book Resources had compiled a fairly comprehensive list of the miniseries’ Easter Eggs.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman is an enjoyable story.  I will admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first two chapters, which felt overly heavy with exposition, and numerous different characters were introduced at a rapid succession.  Beginning with issue #3, though, Mangels seems to have found his groove, and the rest of the miniseries a really fun, exciting romp.

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One of the things to keep in mind about genre television 40 years ago is that the technology really didn’t exist to be able to bring super-powered villains to life with any believability.  Instead both Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman faced a succession of Nazis, mad scientists, killer robots, spies, terrorists and mobsters, along with the occasional low-rent alien invasion.

Mangels sticks with this relatively grounded ethos for the Castra conspiracy in Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, albeit with the approach that he’s not bound by a television budget.  Instead of half a dozen thugs or a handful of android assassins, Mangels has Diana and Jaime teaming up with the Amazons of Paradise Island to fight an entire army of bad guys.

I also appreciated the quieter character moments in the miniseries.  Mangels did a nice job establishing the friendship between Diana and Jaime, as well as developing a number of the inhabitants of Paradise Island.  We seldom saw the Amazons on the TV series, so it was nice to have them get fleshed out here.  This is where I felt the callbacks to past episodes were most effective, because they helped to illustrate Diana’s passionate beliefs in both sisterhood and the possibility of redemption.

Additionally, I was happy that Max the Bionic Dog made an appearance.  I loved Max on TV.  He was adorable and funny.  I would always laugh when he would use his bionically-enhanced jaws to bite through chains and other stuff, complete with the iconic “Deeneeneeneenee” sound effect.  I tell ya, with that set of chompers, the OSI must have needed to give Max steel-plated bones to gnaw on!

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The artwork by Judit Tondora is, for the most part, very nicely rendered.  She does a good job laying out the action sequences, as well as depicting the quiet conversational moments.  There is a real beautiful quality to Tondora’s work on this miniseries.

I imagine one of the more difficult aspects of drawing Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman would have been the likenesses.  These can be tricky.  Sometimes when an artist is working on a licensed property, the trick is not to draw a point-on photorealistic rendering of the actors, but to instead capture the personalities of their characters.  Of course, depending upon the owner of the property, the artist may be required to draw as photorealistic a depiction as possible, which isn’t always the best way to go.  Tondora clearly had her work cut out for her, since practically every character in this miniseries previously appeared on television.

The quality of Tondora’s likenesses on this miniseries is of a somewhat variable quality.  The two best depictions she does are of Lynda Carter as Diana and Lindsay Wagner as Jaime, which is very fortunate, since they are the main characters.

I felt that perhaps some of Tondora’s efforts on the supporting characters and villains were a bit less effective.  While she does a fair enough job at capturing the likenesses of Lyle Waggoner, Richard Anderson, Martin E. Brooks, Fritz William Weaver and John Saxon, the amount of detailed required to render them and the others in panel after panel often causes them to stand out a bit awkwardly amidst the action.  I am of the opinion that photorealistic depictions are sometimes more suited to cover artwork than interior sequential illustration.  I suppose it really depends upon the specific artist.

Really, my only major criticism of the artwork is that it was printed from Tondora’s uninked pencils.  This is a regular issue I have with Dynamite, as well as a few other publishers.  Some artists, no matter how detailed & finished their pencils are, really do need to be inked.  Unfortunately publishers who are looking to cut costs have opted to jettison the inking stage, often to the detriment of their published books.  As good as Tondora’s work is on this miniseries, I feel it could have been even better if she or a compatible artist had been allowed to ink it.

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The cover artwork by Cat Staggs was quite good.  My two favorites were issue #1 and #6.  The others were nice, although I the coloring on them was somewhat overwhelming.  Sometimes I feel Staggs’ artwork is more suited to black & white or grey tones than full color.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, like most other Dynamite series, was released with a number of variant covers.  The nice thing about “waiting for the trade” is that you get all of those variants collected together.  In addition to the Alex Ross variant which is used for the TPB cover, there are also some nice alterative cover images by Andrew Pepoy, J Bone, Aaron Lopresti, Bill Sienkiewicz and Phil Jimenez.

While I did have some criticisms concerning Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, on the whole I found the miniseries to be an enjoyable read with good artwork.  Mangels does leave a couple of his subplots unresolved at the end, setting the stage for a possible sequel.  Hopefully he and Tondora will have the opportunity to reunite on a follow-up miniseries in the near future.

Harlan Ellison gets his kicks on Batman ’66

I sometimes feel rather ambivalent about the Batman television series that ran from 1966 to 1968.  Along with the Super Friends cartoons, when I was a kid it provided my first exposure to many of the characters in the DC Comics universe.  I enjoyed watching reruns of the show when I was growing up in the early 1980s.

A decade later, when I was a teenager, I had a rather different view of show.  By that time, I was reading the actual Batman comic books, along with many other titles.  And it drove me nuts that people would often assume that I was immature for reading comics, that they were nothing but silly, campy stories meant for kids… i.e. exactly like the old TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Along with many other comic book readers, I would protest that comic books could be serious and adult.  I’d wave around my copies of Batman: Year One and Watchmen to demonstrate that comics were intelligent and deep, not at all like that old TV show.  This persisted for years.

And then one day I looked around and realized that everything had turned 180 degrees on me: comic books were too damn serious!  Everyone was trying to mimic Frank Miller and Alan Moore, churning out grim & gritty nonsense, reiterating for the zillionth time the now utterly trite question “What if super-heroes existed in the real world?”  At that point I threw up my hands in frustration and actually started asking “Why can’t comic books be fun again?!?”

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It seems that I’m not the only one to have realized that the pendulum had swung much too far in the opposite direction, taking us from campy to clinically depressing.  I think this is a significant factor in explaining the huge success of the Batman ’66 comic book.  Written by Jeff Parker, with interiors by a number of artists and covers by Mike Allred, Batman ’66 is set in the television series continuity.  This brings us to Batman ’66: The Lost Episode, plotted by Harlan Ellison, scripted by Len Wein, penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and inked by Joe Prado, with a cover by Alex Ross.

Back in the mid-1960s when the first season of the Batman television show was in pre-production, prolific science fiction author Harlan Ellison was invited to write an episode.  He submitted a synopsis entitled “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” which would have brought the duality-obsessed Harvey Dent into the TV show.  For one reason or another, the episode was never made.  The synopsis then spent the next several decades in Ellison’s files.  Finally Ellison dug it out, dusted it off, and included it in Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison Volume 5, published in 2013.  Then, as recounted by Len Wein, Ellison got in touch with DC Comics to suggest the use of his synopsis for the Batman ’66 book.  That got the ball rolling, eventually leading to The Lost Episode special.

Len Wein is probably best known for co-creating Wolverine and Swamp Thing, but he has many credits to his name, including a number of Batman stories that were published in the 1970s and 80s.  He’s also a longtime friend of Ellison, which made him the ideal choice to adapt the synopsis into a full-length comic book script.

It is interesting to compare Wein’s script to the original treatment by Ellison, which is included in The Lost Episode.  Ellison obviously conceived the major points of the plot, which Wein fleshed out.  Wein also added certain details.  Ellison’s synopsis has Two-Face working alone.  In keeping with the character’s double motif, Wein gave Two-Face a pair of henchmen named Deuce and Twain.  Not only does it suit the character, but it also fits with the TV series.  As I recall, every single bad guy on the show had at least a few henchmen on hand to do the heavy lifting and run interference when Batman and Robin inevitably crashed their criminal capers.

I do think there was at least one point that worked better in Ellison’s original outline.  But on the whole Wein does a very good job translating Ellison’s synopsis into a 30 page comic book script.

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Wein did a superb job of capturing the tone of the television show’s scripts.  Reading “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” I really could “hear” in my head Adam West and Burt Ward speaking Batman and Robin’s dialogue.  Wein also utilized television producer William Dozier’s omniscient voiceover narration, including the obligatory mention of “stately Wayne Manor.”  And there was a healthy heaping of animated alliteration from our compelling cast of characters.

The only thing that was missing was the cliffhanger!  As I was reading, I kept expecting that any minute Two-Face and his goons would gain the upper hand on the Dynamic Duo, and that the next instant Batman and Robin would then find themselves about to meet a gristly end in the jaws of some overly-complicated deathtrap.  That was always how the first episode ended!  I’m guessing that Ellison must have composed his story synopsis before the two-episode structure with its requisite cliffhanger was established.

Penciling “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face” is the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  Now this was when my interest in this project was really piqued.  As I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of Garcia-Lopez.  He is an absolutely amazing artist.  Regrettably it has been quite some time since he has worked on any significant projects for DC, focusing instead on licensing art and style guides.  Most of the published work he’s done recently has been variant covers, and those editions were inevitably rare & expensive.  I recently found out he contributed on a couple of issues of All-Star Western which flew under my radar, so I have to search them out.  So the promise of a brand-new, full-length story penciled by Garcia-Lopez was definitely enticing.

I am not especially familiar with Joe Prado, although I know he’s done quite a bit of work for DC over the last several years.  He has a very modern, slick inking style.  Prado utilizes quite a bit of hatching in his embellishment.  This makes for a distinctive collaboration with Garcia-Lopez, whose style is definitely more traditional.

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Perhaps it was done to pad out the size of the book, but The Lost Episode also contains all 30 pages of Garcia-Lopez’s uninked pencils.  While perhaps not an essential element, I certainly regard this as a unique opportunity.  In my blog post Thinking About Inking: The Role of Comic Book Inkers, one of my major points was that it is often difficult for the casual reader to look at a published comic book and discern what the work of the penciler is and what that of the inker is.  The Lost Episode provides us with the chance to view the pencils side-by-side with the inked artwork, enabling us to understand what Garcia-Lopez and Prado each contributed.  It also allows us to see how much of a role the excellent coloring by Alex Sinclair played in establishing the tone and atmosphere of the story.

Garcia-Lopez did illustrate a variant cover for The Lost Episode, although that edition was, inevitably, rarer and more expensive.  At least his uninked pencils for that alternate cover are published inside.

The standard cover is painted by Alex Ross.  I’ve observed in the past that, while Ross is an amazing artist, when it comes to rendering costumed characters sometimes his paintings are a bit too realistic.  If the Batman television series demonstrated one thing, it is that in real life people can end up looking rather preposterous when dressed up in spandex outfits (the exception, of course, being Julie Newmar, who always looked purrfect as Catwoman).  There are times when Ross has created paintings of superheroes that are so photorealistic that it just takes me out of my suspension of disbelief because I feel like I am looking at an actual person wearing a silly costume.  I guess this relates to the whole idea of how a lot of the elements that look fantastic on the pages of comic books end up appearing silly when translated too literally into three-dimensional reality.

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Having said all that, Ross is the ideal artist to be creating covers for Batman ’66.  In this case, since this is a comic book based on a television series (which, yes, in turn was based on a comic book) photorealism is the name of the game.  He definitely captures the likenesses and body language of Adam West and Burt Ward, something he has also done successfully on his recent covers for the Batman ’66 Meets the Green Hornet miniseries.  Ross’ conception of Two-Face is both horrific and tragic, a portrait of brooding, melancholy madness that is obsessively fixated on the duality in life.  He even frames the composition in an off-kilter angle, evoking the tilted “Dutch angle” camera shots the television show utilized for scenes set in the villains’ lairs.  All told, his cover is extremely striking and dramatic.

I do think the ten dollar cover price for Batman ’66: The Lost Episode was a little too high.  Still, all in all, it was a very good book and I am glad I purchased it.

In hindsight, yeah, the Batman television series was pretty cool.  I’m glad that all of the rights issues were finally worked out, enabling it to at last be released on DVD.  And I’m also happy that we have the Batman ’66 comic book series.  It definitely makes for a nice change of pace from the oppressively grim pall of the New 52 Bat-books.

Now if only DC Comics would give Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez an ongoing book to illustrate.  How about a miniseries at the very least?  Come on, DC, just think about it!