One of the most interesting aspects of DC’s New 52 is how it has served as a platform to bring a few classic Vertigo characters, like John Constantine and Swamp Thing, back into the main DC universe. Perhaps more intriguingly, though, is how this most recent bout of continuity tinkering has also resulted in some mainstream superhero books getting a bit of the old “suggested for mature readers” treatment. Nowhere is this more apparent or successful than in Wonder Woman, where Vertigo vets Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) and Cliff Chiang (Human Target) have taken the series in a dark, character-driven new direction.
Let that sink in for a moment. Wonder Woman, who has been an icon of everything from BDSM fetishism to feminism, and who has her roots in the archetypes of Greek mythology, now finds herself at the center of a series primarily concerned with the personality dynamics of an extremely dysfunctional family. That Zeus is the patriarch of said family is largely irrelevant. The real issues here are love, hate, jealousy, abandonment, and that particular variety of abuse that can only be inflicted by one’s closest relatives.
And yes, Diana of Themyscira is now related to the Greek gods, thanks to a new origin story. She learns early in the series that, rather than the Amazon ideal of a daughter with no father, she is actually the result of Zeus’s dalliance with the Amazonian queen Hippolyta. It’s the kind of change guaranteed to irritate some fans, but it’s not gratuitous. One of Azzarello’s goals is clearly to humanize Wonder Woman–or at least to torment her by placing her in situations where her directness will cause her no amount of grief. Of course that could have been achieved by following Diana as a member of normal human society, but that story has been told. Placing her in the midst of the gods’ pettiness and backstabbing–an ongoing fight that she can’t win by force alone–is a nice change of pace for the character.
The gods–or at least those who aren’t too wrapped up in their own power struggle to notice–waste no time in welcoming Diana to the family with open hostility. However, she does find a few allies in the wounded (and rather self-pitying) Hermes; Zola, a brash young woman who is carrying Zeus’s most recent love child; and Lennox, who may be another of Zeus’s half-human offspring, a con man who specializes in tricking the gods, or both. Even these friends offer Wonder Woman little solace, though. Hermes shows no sign that he’s sticking around for anything other than protection. Lennox isn’t the type to open up to anyone, and Zola is friendly with Diana, but obviously harboring her share of secrets.
Far more than action, it’s this web of strained relationships that serves as Wonder Woman’s real focus. That’s a good decision. Clash of the Titans-style Olympian battle royals aren’t exactly uncommon in modern pop culture, and Justice League gives Diana a place to operate in full warrior princess mode. There’s no reason for Wonder Woman not to forge its own identity; and given the series’ mythological trappings, modern fantasy seems like the perfect fit.
Cliff Chiang has already proven himself to be the perfect artist for the job. His pencils have an arty, angular look, and his character designs are all wonderfully unique. I particularly like how he depicts Diana with the proportions of figures painted on ancient Greek pottery, a choice that instantly sets her apart from the rest of the characters. At times, he seems to consciously reference Marc Hempel’s run on Sandman, but for the most part his work has its own distinct feel. Though that feel is missing from Tony Akins’ guest art on issues 5 and 6, it’s at least nice that DC got another Vertigo alumnus to fill in in Chiang’s absence. And, it must be said, Akins’ depiction of Poseidon’s particularly complex new look is excellent.
Thus far, Wonder Woman’s reinvention has been a success. Azzarello’s handling of both the plot and the scripts leaves very little to be desired, and the allusions to classic Vertigo in both art and writing are entirely welcome. Still, if this really is meant to be the “Vertigo-ization” of Wonder Woman–and DC certainly seems to want readers to see it that way–then the series is going to have to push the envelope further than it has so far. It’s not enough for the book to be stylish, fantastical and occasionally creepy. It also needs to be challenging. Vertigo’s best creators have always been those who forced readers to confront uncomfortable subjects, and who actively subverted audience expectations. Wonder Woman’s milieu offers ample opportunities to broach relevant and controversial topics, but whether that will be allowed in a such a visible superhero series is very much an open question.
All speculation aside, Wonder Woman has benefited more from DC’s New 52 initiative than almost any other title. As fun as it is to watch Diana put her enemies to the sword over in Justice League, seeing her own series get a sophisticated fantasy makeover is even better. Wonder Woman’s future may not be clear, but it is at least off to an exciting start.