Diana Prince: Wonder Woman Volume 2

By Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-900-0

Back for a second delicious helping of pop nostalgia and startling action is Diana Prince, erstwhile Amazon superhero, but for a brief moment a mortal woman with all the power and wit that entails – solving problems and fighting injustice with great style and incredible fashion-sense.

In 1968 superhero comics were in decline and publishers sought new ways to keep audience as tastes changed. Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales, and if you weren’t popular, you died. Editor Jack Miller and Mike Sekowsky stepped up with a radical proposal and made a little bit of comic book history with the only female superhero then in the marketplace.

The superbly eccentric art of Sekowsky had been a DC mainstay for decades, and he had also scored big with fans at Gold Key with Man from Uncle and at Tower Comics’ T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and war comic Fight The Enemy! His unique take on the Justice League of America had cemented its overwhelming success, and now he was stretching himself with a number of experimental, youth-market directed projects.

Tapping into the teen zeitgeist with the Easy Rider-like drama Jason’s Quest proved ultimately unsuccessful, but with the Metal Men and the hopelessly moribund Wonder Woman he had much greater impact. He would ultimately work the same magic with Supergirl.

When the Amazons were forced to leave our dimension, they took with them all their magic – including Wonder Woman’s powers and all her weapons … Now no more or less than human she decided to stay on Earth permanently, assuming her own secret identity of Diana Prince, dedicated to fighting injustice as a mortal. Blind Buddhist monk I Ching trained her as a martial artist, and she quickly became embroiled in the schemes of would-be world-conqueror Doctor Cyber. Her one true love Steve Trevor was branded a traitor and killed…

This volume (which collects issues #185-189 of her comic book, a guest shot from Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #93 plus the first of two appearances in the Batman team-up vehicle Brave and the Bold #87) shows just how bold were those changes to the Amazing Amazon’s career. With young scripter Denny O’Neil moved to other projects Sekowsky took over the writing himself, surprising everyone with his savvy ear for dialogue and a refreshingly original take on the old conventions.

With apparently nothing to lose, the switch to espionage/adventurer in the fashionable footsteps of such popular TV characters as Emma Peel, The Girl from Uncle and Honey West, not to mention our own ultimate comic strip action-heroine Modesty Blaise, seemed like desperation, but clearly struck a chord with the public. Sekowsky opens this book with ‘Them!’ – one of the most original tales of the period, with few to match it written since.

Steeped heavily in the hippie counter-culture and Mod-fashion explosion, the New Wonder Woman had opened her own boutique and into it rushes a young girl seeking to escape three women who took her in and then made her their slave. Today this sort of psychological thriller is more recognisable, but in 1969 themes of bullying and peer abuse were utterly unknown in comic books, and this groundbreaking tale is uniquely informative: exploring other solutions than simply punching bad guys – although there’s enough of that so that the regular readers aren’t completely bewildered.

This is followed by ‘Morgana the Witch’, (WW #186) a spectacular flight of whimsy tapping into the then growing interest in the supernatural wherein a trio of teenaged girls with a talking frog (who was originally the boy friend of one of them) request help after accidentally summoning a powerful (and clearly bi-polar) sorceress to the 20th century.

Next is ‘The Superman-Wonder Woman Team!’ (by Robert Kanigher and Irv Novick from Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #93), a less adventurous and unreconstructed yarn where the also socially evolving girl-reporter seeks to uncover the reason the ex-Amazon is making an ill-concealed play for her man, and a superbly tense thriller by Sekowsky and Giordano from Brave and the Bold #87 entitled ‘The Widow-Maker’, wherein the son of one of Batman’s foes tries to add to his tally of murders by luring the Caped Crusader into a rigged high performance car race.

The book concludes with a gripping three-part saga revealing some of I Ching’s past  and reintroducing the deadly Dr. Cyber before seamlessly transiting into an exotic Cold War thriller. In ‘Earthquaker’ and ‘Cyber’s Revenge’ Diana’s mentor is summoned by old friends to Hong Kong where he and his astonishing pupil happen upon a plan to blackmail the island with catastrophic artificial earthquakes, before attempting to smuggle an entire village out of Communist China in the delightfully epic ‘Red for Death’. The spectacle is broken up by a wonderful extra two page strip vignette ‘Crime does not Pay’ which brilliantly demonstrates the wit and economy of the medium

Comics are an art-form dictated by markets, driven by sales and influenced by fashion. For a brief moment all these factors coalesced to produce a compelling, engaging and utterly fabulous sequence of tales that are timelessly perfect and eternally fresh. And now you can read them whenever you feel the need for better times simply by opening these pages…

© 1969, 1970, 2008 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Wonder Woman: the Once and Future Story

By Trina Robbins, Colleen Doran & Jackson Guice (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-373

Every so often the intention to do good generates an above average comics product such as this one-shot created to raise awareness of domestic violence. A hugely important issue, and one that far too many unfortunate children are sadly aware of from an early age, it is also one of the oldest “relevant” topics in comic book history: Superman memorably dealt rough justice to a “wife-beater” in his very first adventure (Action Comics #1, June 1938).

Less visceral, but far more even-handed, is this beautiful, subtle tale-within-a-tale from Trina Robbins, illustrated by Colleen Doran and Jackson Guice. Wonder Woman is summoned to an archeological dig in Ireland by a husband and wife team to verify the finding of a 3000 year old tomb that contains the body and burial trappings of a princess from the fabled island of Themyscira.

As Wonder Woman translates the scrolls detailing the story of Princess Artemis of Ephesus, daughter of Queen Alcippe, who was taken as a slave by the Greek hero Theseus, she slowly realizes that the animosity of dig-chief James Kennealy is perhaps more than professional jealousy, and that his wife’s Moira’s defensive attitude and constant apologies mask a dark secret. Artemis’s brutal, painful quest to rescue her mother mirrors Moira’s journey to awareness as both women, separated by three millennia, take control of their so different, tragically similar lives.

Challenging, powerful but still wonderfully entertaining, this is a tale both worthy and worthwhile.
© 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Wonder Woman: Amazons Attack!

By Will Pfeiffer & Peter Woods (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-654-2

Beware any book that begins “the Story So Far…”

Have you ever watched a film or read a book when you were so tired that you kept nodding off, only to repeatedly wake and find whole chunks of the story gone by and you unable to work out where you were and how you got there? If not you could closely mimic the experience by reading Amazons Attack!

And now that I’ve got that off my prodigious chest I’ll attempt to be a little more generous and helpful. But I will say this: if you’re new to comics or need all the details to enjoy a story – buy something else.

They could at least have provided a list of the other titles and issues the story strands this six part miniseries wove through so that interested readers could track them down…

Before all this kicks off the Department of Metahuman Affairs has ordered the arrest of Wonder Woman, on the orders of a shape-shifting agent called Everyman who has replaced the real boss Sarge Steel. On the magical island of Themyscira the evil sorceress Circe has resurrected the Amazing Amazon’s dead mother, but the once serene and stately warrior queen seems a little strange…

When Queen Hippolyta learns that Wonder Woman has been captured and is being tortured by the Americans she declares war on the United States, unaware that US agent Nemesis has already helped her daughter escape…

Now begin reading…

The great pity here is that when taken in conjunction with the missing chapters that comprised this braided mega-event, Amazons Attack! is a tremendously entertaining and powerful read, with Washington DC, Kansas, Gotham City and many other locations spectacularly reeling under the magical assault of the mythological super-women and their fabulous war-beasts surpassing anything you’ve seen as movie blockbusters.

With the US government in retreat, the President declares anyone with Amazon connections a potential terrorist, equalling the iniquities of Japanese internment in WWII, and forcing heroes to choose sides, torn between friendship and love of country.

Naturally Batman deduces that there’s a deeper, double game being played, Superman proves the power of true nobility and Wonder Woman is forced to confront some ugly truths before the whole rotten mess is resolved in a shock ending.

And then there’s another, bigger one that impacts both Countdown to… and Final Crisis!

Will Pfeiffer and Pete Woods produced superb work in the miniseries that manages to amaze and entertain as well as make some telling points about the real American war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s borderline criminal to produce a collection that only gives half the story – and yes I know there’s a text catch-up page preceding each chapter; my point is there shouldn’t have to be!.

Can we have a complete book, pretty please – even if it does have to be a whacking great Absolute Edition?
© 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Diana Prince: Wonder Woman Vol. 4

By Denny O’Neil, Samuel R. Delaney, Bob Haney, Don Heck, Dick Giordano & Jim Aparo (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-156-4

In this concluding chronicle of the de-powered Wonder Woman (comprising issues #199-204 of her own comic plus her team-up with Batman from Brave and the Bold #105) the unique vision and quirky style of Mike Sekowsky is noticeably absent as sometime scripter Denny O’Neil returns for a by-the-numbers thriller illustrated by Marvel veteran Don Heck, with visual continuity assured by inker Dick Giordano.

‘Tribunal of Fear’ is a muddled, fashion-based crime thriller guest-starring private eye Jonny Double, and the concluding part (WW #200, by O’Neil and Giordano) sees the return of an old foe in ‘The Beauty Hater!’. Perhaps these tales should be best remembered for their covers, crafted by the illustrious Jeff Jones.

Catwoman contended with the mortal Amazon in #201’s ‘The Fist of Flame’ when Diana and her mentor I Ching journeyed to Tibet in pursuit of a fabulous, cursed gem which precipitated another extra-dimensional jaunt. Designed to introduce DC’s newest property, noted novelist Samuel R. Delaney joined Giordano for ‘Fangs of Fire’, a helter-skelter epic as Diana, Ching and Catwoman battled with and beside Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd the Barbarian and the Gray Mouser (the soon-to-be stars of the brief but superb Sword of Sorcery licensed comic).

This wonderfully extravagant delight was followed by ‘Play Now… Die Later!’ (by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, Brave and the Bold #105) as Diana joined Batman in Gotham City for a gritty, fast-paced thriller involving kidnappers and South American revolutionaries, before Delaney and Giordano took her into a fascinating new direction in the socially-aware Women’s Rights tale ‘The Grandee Caper’.

Comic fans love to gossip. When the next issue appeared it devoted the first twelve pages to undoing everything that had happened since Wonder Woman lost her powers in issue #179, before revising her mythical origin and returning her to her world of immortal Gods, Amazons and super-villains, with a new black nemesis, Nubia.

‘The Second Life of the Original Wonder Woman’ by Robert Kanigher, Heck and Giordano is not such a bad story, but its abrupt reversals had tongues wagging and heads spinning. Had the series offended some shady “higher-ups” who didn’t want controversy or a shake-up of the status quo?

I think not. Sales were never great on the title, and the most logical reason is probably Television.

The Amazon had been optioned as a series since the days of the Batman show in 1967, and by this time – 1973 – work had undoubtedly begun on the original 1974 pilot featuring Cathy Lee Crosby. An abrupt return to the character most viewers would be familiar with from their own childhoods seems perfectly logical to me… By the time Linda Carter made the concept live Wonder Woman was once again “Stronger than Hercules, swifter than Mercury and more beautiful than Aphrodite…”

Comics are an art-form dictated by markets, driven by sales and influenced by fashion. For a brief moment all these factors and a few gifted creators gelled to produce a compelling, engaging and utterly fabulous tranche of tales that are timelessly perfect and eternally fresh. And now you can read them whenever you feel the need simply by opening these pages…

© 1972, 1973, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Diana Prince: Wonder Woman volume 3

By Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-016-1

With this third collection of the brilliant mod avenger sequence of Wonder Woman Mike Sekowsky hit his creative peak, seamlessly blending whimsical comedy with barbaric fantasy, high adventure with high fashion and street credibility with the so, so “in vogue” supernatural. The quality came at a price though, as of the nine issues covered here (Wonder Woman #190-198) two and three quarters were reprints necessitated by missed deadlines. Comprehensively filling out the page count is the heroine’s team-up with Superman from World’s Finest Comics #204.

‘Detour’ (issue #190 and superbly inked by the great Dick Giordano) finds the capable ex-Amazon and her blind mentor I Ching crossing interdimensional divides to visit her mother Queen Hippolyta when a cosmic storm deposits them in a dark, feudal world. Captured by slavers they befriend a barbarian and join a revolution against the oppressive Empire of Chalandor, but the second part in #191 was only five pages (padded by reprints) before the epic concluded in #192 with an ‘Assault on Castle Skull’.

The heady brew of swords, armoured combat and fantastic flying machines was balanced by a powerful drama of very human scale in ‘Angela’ when a troubled mother came seeking justice for her daughter, poisoned by a spiked drink at a party. This topical tragedy was followed by an effective and engaging pastiche.

The Prisoner of Zenda (as interpreted by the splendid 1952 Richard Thorpe film rather than the book written by Anthony Hope in 1894) inspired #194’s ‘The Prisoner’, a wonderfully lavish piece of action-packed fluff that proved the sheer versatility of the Single White Female Crime-fighter concept.

Wonder Woman #195 was a mini-masterpiece of spooky thrills. ‘The House that Wasn’t’ found Diana and Ching carjacked by escaped convicts and taking shelter from a blizzard in a haunted Inn. This classic tale is enhanced by the lush, moody inking of the legendary Wally Wood.

The aforementioned team-up with the Man of Steel follows: a cautionary tale from the early days of the ecology movement. ‘Journey to the End of Hope’ (WF #204) is by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, and featured a computer from the future which begs the heroes to save an unidentified man destined to die in a campus riot – else the Earth will become a toxic ruin!

Issue #196’s ‘Target for Today?’ is the last inclusion in this book (#197 and 198 were both all-reprint editions and are only represented by their covers), a taut thriller wherein Diana becomes the bodyguard for a visiting monarch targeted for assassination…

The uniquely eccentric art of Mike Sekowsky had been a DC mainstay for decades, and he had also garnered kudos for The Man from Uncle, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Fight The Enemy! His unique take on the Justice League of America had contributed to its overwhelming success, but with the stories collected here he was reaching the end of his tenure on the experimentally de-vitalised heroine.

Superhero comics were in decline and publishers were impatiently looking for fresh ways to stay in business as audience tastes changed. Back then, with the entire industry dependent on newsstand sales, if you weren’t popular, you died. Within six issues Wonder Woman would regain her magical powers and return to a world of Greek gods, aliens, and super-villains but that period of cool, hip, bravely human heroism and drama on an intimate scale stands out as a self-contained high-point of quality in a largely bland career.

At least there’s enough fab and gear frolics for one last volume. I can’t wait…

© 1970, 1971, 1972, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.