Comic book reviews: Wonder Woman #30-35

This past week Wonder Woman #35 came out, bringing to a close the three year long story arc by Brain Azzarello, Cliff Chiang & friends. For those keeping track, that’s actually 38 installments: 35 regular issues, the flashback #0, the origin of the First Born in #23.2 during Forever Evil month, and a story in Secret Origins #6. It’s been quite a ride, and on the whole a successful one, at least in my estimation as a reader.

Wonder Woman 30 cover
Speaking of Secret Origins #6, the twelve page tale contained within makes a nice prequel to this whole run. Written by Azzarello & Chiang, with artwork by Goran Sudzuka, it fills in a few blanks in the New 52 back story of Princess Diana. As in past continuities, Queen Hippolyta attempted to fashion a baby daughter out of clay; this time, however, the gods did not gift the clay with life. Instead the philandering Zeus made his presence known, and he seduced the Amazon matriarch, giving her the gift of a daughter. Hippolyta chose to perpetrate the lie about Diana being born of clay to protect her from Hera’s jealousy.

More significantly, we find out that Diana and Aleka, bitter rivals in the present, were once the closest of friends. There may even have been an unrequited love on Aleka’s part for the Princess. But Diana was restless, and wanted to explore the world beyond Paradise Island. Aleka felt betrayed & abandoned by Diana, which led to their current animosity.

Truthfully, the Wonder Woman tale in Secret Origins #6 could have used a few more pages. I think it’s a mistake to try to cram three different character origins into each issue. The histories of not just Wonder Woman, but also Deadman and Sinestro all needed more room to breathe. I think it would be better if Secret Origins became a double feature.

Secret Origins 6 pg 6
Moving along to Wonder Woman #30-35, the final six issues penned by Azzarello, the epic he has been weaving comes to an interesting, thoughtful, exciting conclusion. Truthfully, when I first read these issues, they did feel decompressed. However, sitting down and going through them again today in one sitting, I see that Azzarello took the time to bring closure to many of the subplots and themes that he had been developing over the previous two and a half years.

As Wonder Woman #30 opens, the First Born has seized control of Olympus, transforming it into a bloody charnel house that mirrors his twisted psyche. Consumed by millennia of rage at having been left to die by Zeus in ages past, he is ready to wipe out every single member of his family so that he will be the last god in existence. The surviving members of the Greek pantheon and their offspring, including Diana, have gathered on Paradise Island to mobilize the Amazon army to oppose the First Born’s nihilistic designs.

Before any move can be made against the mad god, though, certain affairs of state must be addressed. Hippolyta is still a lifeless statue, Hera inexplicably unable to restore her humanity. Instead Hera announces that Diana is the new Queen of the Amazons, a proclamation met with some disapproval, especially by Aleka. Thus Diana finds herself in the difficult position of having to assume yet another new identity. Already struggling to fill the role of the deity of War, now she must become a monarch. That involves not just leading her people into battle, but also into the future.

And a significant part of that future is the question of the role of men. A number of readers, perhaps understandably so, took issue with Azzarello writing the Amazons as man-haters who seduced males in order to breed before slaying them, and who exiled all of their male children to the realm of Hephaestus. Diana herself was unhappy when she learned of this. Now that she is Queen, she sets out to try and change the Amazons. She assigns to them the collective symbolic role of motherhood to Zeke, the infant boy who her friend Zola gave birth to after a one night stand with a disguised Zeus. Diana also has Hephaestus transport all of the sons of the Amazons back to Paradise Island, to fight alongside their mothers & sisters against the First Born.

Wonder Woman 30 pg 17
As Diana explains…

“We need to evolve. We’ve isolated ourselves to the detriment of our society… and some of our children. The old ways… do they actually work anymore? Do we just cling to them because that’s the way our forebears intended? We need to look at ourselves and open the doors we’ve closed. And now is a good place to start.”

Azzarello also continues to examine how immortality is perhaps more of a curse than a blessing. If one is unable to die, at least from old age, then does one eventually begin taking life for granted? Without the ever-present certainty of death in the future, does one become aloof and disconnected from the rest of the world?

Previously the once-imperious Hera was turned mortal, requiring her to learn to deal with fear and loneliness and vulnerability. Azzarello showed the former queen of the gods gaining humility and an entirely different perspective on existence. She became friends with Zola, the woman who she once wished dead. But now restored to divinity, Hera once more begins to feel disconnected from humanity. When Zola tries to ask her what is going on, Hera coldly replies “I’m no longer mortal. I’m a god. Life, death… for me, it’s once again like one of those shows we would watch and laugh at together. It’s beneath my concern.” Listening to all of this, Zola angrily responds “You once said you were afraid of dying alone. Well, hope you like living alone… goddess.”

Wonder Woman 34 pg 6
Strife also seems to epitomize the dangers of everlasting life. The goddess of discord seems utterly bored by existence, and the only way in which she can tolerate it is to create trouble. Strife is the ultimate shit-stirrer. She is like someone who hands a long, pointy stick to a group of children, encourages them to use it to poke at a hornet’s nest, and then sits back sipping a glass of wine, smiling in amusement as chaos & suffering unfolds before her. The carnage & devastation being wrought by the First Born is but one more diversion to entertain her.

Indeed, when the First Born and his army some come calling, Paradise Island is transformed into a war zone. The casualties on both sides are horrific, something that does not bother the First Born in the slightest. “There is no sentimentality in life” he harshly states to Diana. Having never felt love, having been rejected from the moment of his birth, the First Born wants nothing more than to share his pain with the whole of existence.

Diana, on the other hand, refuses to set aside her empathy and mercy. It is an integral part of who she is. As seen back in issue #0, years before when Diana was a teenager, the old god War, then her mentor, severely scolded her for her unwillingness to slay a fallen foe, and rejected her as his pupil. Now in the present, Diana is saved by that act of kindness. The Minotaur serving the First Born is revealed to be the very same one who Diana showed mercy to all those years ago, and it refuses to kill her. This act is enough to restore Diana’s faith in her abilities & beliefs, and to once again stand against the First Born.

Wonder Woman 35 pg 11
Orion from the New Gods also pops up once more, playing a small but crucial role in the conflict. When last seen he is charging off into battle alongside the goddess Moon. That’s an appropriate pairing, since Moon is also known as Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Orion is named after the mythical hunter. I think they would make a lovely couple, assuming they don’t kill each other first!

In my previous Wonder Woman review I wondered where, exactly, Zeus had gotten off to. The former ruler of Olympus was conspicuous in his absence throughout the entirety of Azzarello’s storyline. Well, as I predicted, we do indeed find out exactly where Zeus has been… although it was actually the last place I expected. Of course, the revelation makes perfect sense once you think about it. And, looking at some other blogs online, such as Martin Gray’s Too Dangerous For A Girl, it appears that a few people did actually see this coming. Well, I was surprised, okay?

In terms of artwork, these issues are all very strong. Sudzuka illustrates Wonder Woman #30 & #31 in full, and does the finishes for #32 over Chiang’s layouts.  Issue #s 33 to #35 are illustrated by Chiang going solo for the big wrap-up. The coloring is, as always, courtesy of Matthew Wilson, who does superb work. Chiang’s covers for all six issues are fantastic, with very striking layouts & designs.

Both Chiang and Sudzuka do a fine job at demonstrating their versatility on the interior art. There are many great, dramatic pages, as well as some nice, effective character-driven sequences. It’s difficult to pick out a favorite. But one of the stand-out images is by Chiang in issue #34, as Hephaestus leads his troops into battle, headed up by a trio of giant mechanical war elephants. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.

Wonder Woman 34 pg 13
As I mentioned before, the reactions to Azzarello & Chiang’s run on Wonder Woman have been mixed. I will admit that there were a few rough patches, especially early on. But I’m glad that I stuck with the book, because this was a really great run with a satisfying conclusion that tied everything together. At some point in the near future I look forward to sitting down and re-reading this storyline in its entirety, and finding out what I get out of it the second time around.

Comic book reviews: Wonder Woman #24-29

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang’s run on Wonder Woman for a while now.  I really enjoy it; currently it is the only DC Comics New 52 title I follow regularly.  I recently learned that Azzarello & Chiang will be departing from the series sometime in the near future.  So, no time like the present!

Azzarello has a really good handle on Wonder Woman.  He understands the contradictions in the character: she is a highly trained, skilled, dangerous warrior, yet she is also an envoy of peace.  Azzarello scripts Princess Diana as someone who recognizes that force must sometimes be utilized in the cause of protecting the innocent, but she tries to avoid doing so out of anger or malice.  She hopes to provide everyone with an opportunity to prove themselves before having to resorting to violence.

It’s interesting that Azzarello utilizes an aspect of the character from the original Golden Age stories by William Moulton Marston & H.G. Peter, that Diana wears her bracelets not just for defense, but to restrain her boundless strength & anger, lest she loses control.  In this way, Azzarello has Diana acknowledge her own incongruities: she must accept her own capacity for violence, and control it, before she can ask others to do the same.

This has become even more of a challenge for Diana in recent issues.  The long-exiled first son of Zeus, known only as the First Born, has escaped from his thousands of years exile at the Earth’s center, ready to kill everything in his path and seize control of Mount Olympus.  The First Born was prepared to slay Diana’s mentor the god War, which would have given him all of War’s powers.  This forced Diana to kill her former teacher first, a very painful choice.  It was one made even worse by the fact that it meant that now she is War, a role that she does not want to play, as it goes against all her beliefs.

Wonder Woman 29 cover

Another aspect of the Azzarello & Chiang run that I’ve enjoyed is their re-interpretation of the Greek deities.  Instead of a group of dignified-looking humanoids clad in white togas, these gods of Olympus are an assortment of bizarre, dysfunctional freaks.  Which, when you take even a moment to think about it, makes perfect sense.  If you ever read the original Greek myths, the gods are typically depicted as selfish, petty, vain, capricious, vengeful entities that squabble amongst themselves, abuse their powers, and typically create more harm than good.  Azzarello’s writing captures those qualities spot-on, scripting a group of scheming, preening politicos who switch allegiances at a mercurial speed.  The physical conception of these entities by Chiang perfectly encapsulates their twisted priorities & agendas.

The events of Azzarello & Chiang’s overall story arc are, naturally enough, caused by the machinations of the gods.  Zeus, the millennia-long monarch of Olympus, has vanished, leaving a power vacuum that his fellow deities wish to fill.  His long-ago actions to the First Born have also come to rear their ugly head.  When it was prophesized that his first child would kill him, Zeus attempted to kill the then-infant First Born, setting the later on a millennia-long path of resentment-filled carnage & violence.

At the same time, Zeus’ infamous serial philandering has had consequences. The disguised deity seduced & impregnated an ordinary mortal woman named Zola.  Zeus’ jealous wife Hera, once again unable to take out her anger on her all-powerful husband, set out to kill Zola.  This is where Diana came in, protecting & befriending the pregnant woman.  Along the way, Diana herself learned that she was the result of a tryst between her mother & Zeus.  Hera also found out, and transformed all of the Amazons on Paradise Island into snakes.

Eventually Zeus’ son Apollo rose to the throne of Olympus and stripped his mother Hera of her divinity, making her a mortal.  This presented Diana with a serious dilemma.  As much as she disliked Hera, she now had to protect the former Queen of Olympus, since she was probably the only being who might one day restore the Amazons to normal.

This led to a really interesting situation: Zola and Hera, who hated each other’s guts, found themselves looking after each other, often having to aid one another in their mutual quest to survive the many dangers they faced.  Out of that was eventually formed a grudging friendship.  Even more interesting, the now-mortal Hera painfully began to gain a measure of humility and humanity.  Along the way Hera made some hysterically inappropriate social faux pas as she learned about acting in a tactful, polite manner, as opposed to an imperious deity.  So her development has been an interesting mix of drama and comedy.

Wonder Woman 27 pg 7

In the last several issues, we have seen Apollo attempting to bend the First Born to his will.  Instead, Apollo learns that hatred nurtured over millennia does indeed burn hotter than the Sun.  The First Born violently seizes Olympus, and is prepared to brutally obliterate all who oppose his will.  Diana, with a re-powered Hera and the once-more human army of Amazons at her side, must embrace the mantle of War in order to defeat the First Born.

By the way, Zeus has been conspicuous by his total absence from Wonder Woman so far.  Having caused this whole entire mess to begin with, no doubt he’s laying low for now, waiting for everyone else to do his dirty work.  I would not be at all surprised if Azzarello has Zeus finally show up just as the dust is clearing, ready to once again assume rule of the gods and carry on with business as usual.  I guess we shall see.

Cliff Chiang superbly illustrates Azzarello’s stories.  The art on these issues is simply amazing.  Chiang’s Diana is beautiful & strong.  The action sequences are dynamic & gritty.  The quiet character moments are full of personality & emotion.  This really is top-notch stuff.  I recently heard someone compare Chiang’s work to Jaime Hernandez.  I had not thought about that before, but yes, now I can see there are certain qualities to their art that are similar.  Certainly each of them are amazing at drawing interesting, expressive characters, utilizing strong storytelling, and imbuing their work with drama.

In addition to totally redesigning the Olympians, Chiang also did a make-over for Orion of the New Gods, who has been popping in and out the pages of Wonder Woman for the last year and a half.  Although I prefer the original Kirby design, I have to admit that Chiang’s interpretation of Orion is undoubtedly one of the better revamps that I’ve seen throughout the New 52 line.

Wonder Woman 26 pg 2

I guess that Chiang is not nearly fast enough to pencil & ink an ongoing monthly series, and so he has occasionally had other artists spot him.  Most recently Goran Sudzuka pitched in to help, drawing Wonder Woman #s 24-26, and contributing some layouts for Chiang on #28.  Jose Marzan Jr. came onboard with some nice inking over Sudzuka on #s 25-26.  They did very nice work, and it complements Chaing’s art quite well, not clashing at all.  The rich, lovely coloring by Matthew Wilson no doubt helps to maintain an overall tone to the series.

I haven’t yet seen a definitive final issue for Azzarello & Chiang’s Wonder Woman run announced yet.  It’ll probably be within the next six months.  I’ll certainly be sorry to see them leave.  But if they manage to maintain the quality that they’ve shown over the past two and a half years, then they will certainly be going out on a high point, in style.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.