Saturday, October 4, 2008

Diana Prince: Wonder Woman Volume 1

When I started to become a die hard Wonder Woman fan in the early '90s, I had the luck of finding some old "mod" '60s copies for cheap, and my enjoyment of them only increased my fervor for the character. Truth to tell, my specific enjoyment of the William Messner-Loebs and Mike Sekowsky runs, which revolved a more rough and tumble yet humanly vulnerable Princess Diana, probably helped poison any appreciation I might have had for runs by guys like John Byrne, Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka. Then again, all of those guys have forced me to wade through completely unrelated pools of shit, maybe they just sucked that bad.

My concern was that, after hearing much criticism of those issues from Wonder Woman fans over the years, that they might not hold up to review fifteen years after my initial exposure. I was certain I'd have issues with the misogynistic tendencies of Denny O'Neil on the issues he scripted, and Sekowsky was best known as an artist. Would I have cause for regret over having boosted those retro oddities over the years?

Nope. From the first page on this trades' reprints I was presented with a Wonder Woman book far more dynamic than most. #178 opens with detectives attempting to arrest Steve Trevor for murder. The second page features an impressive splash of Trevor on the witness stand, while a monochromatic body hovers symbolically over his head. Admittedly, the rest of O'Neil's script is a bit of a hack job, reading like an episode of a bad period detective show involving counterculture elements the writer had slight command of. Still, the pages were psychedelically colorful, yet grounded in a semblance of reality unseen in Wonder Woman comics probably from inception. On the other hand, Diana's mid-story fashion extravaganza is only the highest quality connoisseur cheese. While the story isn't exactly good, by comparison to the dreck Robert Kanigher was responsible for prior, it was a quantum leap in craftsmanship.

The changes really begin in #179, where Steve conspires with a general to frame himself for treason as part of an investigation. By page two, Steve's beaten up the general and several MPs, and the fourth page is a splash og Trevor leaping through a window, sending glass hurtling at the reader. Sekowsky is excellent here, as his lack of grace lends the fantastic action an awkward realism, as though he were marrying Neal Adams to Steve Ditko. The polished inks of Dick Giordano certainly contribute to that comparison, as he renders Sekowsky with the glamour of a newspaper, without bogging it down with static rigidity.

The changes continue in a second chapter, where Diana is forced to choose Man's World over her Amazon sisters, who must endure an other dimensional exile to renew their magical powers. The former princess must now scrounge for work and a fleabag apartment. Diana is also introduced to I Ching, a diminutive blind Asian martial artist in a derby. I'm sure Messrs. Steed and Bond were not consulted in the matter. Ching plays Mr. Miyagi to Diana's Daniel-San, insuring she can continue to express loving dominion over man even without super powers. To emphasise the "loving" portion, Diana's first new uniform involves dark green skirt-shorts and thigh high boots. To really bring home that this was a new era, the issue even ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.

#180 features the third iconic cover in a row, as I-Ching consoles a tearful Diana, who holds an off-panel Trevor's hand while crying, "Steve... What have I done to you?" Inside, Diana meets hardboiled dick Tim Trench in the midst of an attempt on her life. Sekowsky and Giordano clearly relish the opportunity to toss Diana about in a bright yellow, skin tight miniskirt. In action though, she switches to a bulkier purple and yellow ski suit, which in no way inhibits her martial prowess. While the chauvanistic Trench swaggers, we learn he's in pursuit of Doctor Cyber, the mysterious big bad of the trade paperback. Cyber's global criminal organization is a sight to behold. While it's no SPECTRE, I expect Derek Flint would be right at home, and Mr. V should take notes.

The revelations, deaths, and betrayals continue into #181, and sans O'Neil, #182. Sekowsky's early attempted at scripting for himself was quite a mess, with characters running all over creation for no apparent reason, and a third completely unneccesary love interest is introduced. The resolution to the first Dr. Cyber arc was deeply unsatisfying, but thankfully her tale was far from done, just not continued in volume one. Instead, Sekowsky returns to the Amazons of Paradise Island for a final two-parter. Diana's mother had pulled a Sleeping Beauty, leaving her people in desperate need for leadership against the forces of Ares, God of War. As her mother would wish, Diana refuses to surrender the secret of interdimensional travel to Ares, and instead chose to rally her army for an impossible fight. "Return To Paradise Island" is brimming with striking visuals, casting Diana as an inspirational heroine to be admired. The second half weakens, as Diana is forced to rely on the kindness of men to take the day, but Wonder Woman is victorious nonetheless.

I stand behind these tales as some of the best in the Wonder Woman cannon, and an excellent introduction to the character for readers with negative suppositions about her merits. I expect I'll have to get cracking on volume two so I can see how things roll from here...

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