You’re a wonder, Wonder Woman

Welcome to the site’s new Comics category. I’ve been wanting to start covering comics for a while, and today I read some news that had to be shared.

According to Newsarama — the smartest, best and most thoughtful comic book news site you’ll find — Gail Simone is taking over as the writer of Wonder Woman as of issue 13.

This is excellent news.

Gail has been rocking the shit on DC’s Birds of Prey since issue 56 and also had a solid recent run on Action Comics, the still-going-strong series that launched Superman in 1938. Her writing is thoughtful with a lot of heart, but then she can turn on a dime and ratchet up the action to summer blockbuster levels when you least expect it. She likes to push her characters, and she listens when they push back. She’s one of the best writers working in comics today and I can’t wait to see where she takes who is arguably the greatest female comics icon in history. (Sean McKeever will take over Birds of Prey as part of his new exclusive contract with DC. I’ve never read any of his stuff, but he gets great reviews, so that’s good enough for me.)

First, some background.

Wonder Woman by Terry and Rachel Dodson

Wonder Woman — an Amazon princess named Diana who was sent by her people to be an ambassador to our world — first appeared in All Star Comics in 1941. But, like many of you, my first introduction to Wonder Woman came via the TV series that debuted in 1976 starring lovely Lynda Carter in the title role.

There’s a second season episode called “Screaming Javelin” in which a maniacal villain called Mariposa — played with much wicked glee by Henry Gibson in a puffy purple jumpsuit — taunts Wonder Woman with his diabolical plan (which involves creating his own Olympic team with kidnapped athletes; it’s not quite as ridiculous as it sounds).

Wonder Woman: It’s quite a dream, Mr. Mariposa. But I’m afraid it’s only a dream. I had more-or-less the same problem with Napoleon Bonaparte.

Mariposa: His dream was to conquer the world. Mine is a little bit more … realistic.

Wonder Woman: You call this realistic? I’m beginning to lose my temper with you, Mr. Mariposa, and that’s something I haven’t done in five or six hundred years.

And right there, in that moment, Lynda Carter glows with every century of grace, wisdom and goodness behind Wonder Woman’s timeless blue eyes. That’s what she brought to the character. Yes, she looked amazing in the costume. In fact, I’ll always think that Lynda Carter is one of the most absolutely beautiful women who’s ever lived, period. And yes, she was capable and formidable in the fight scenes and stunts. But it was the warmth and the previously mentioned grace, wisdom and goodness that makes Carter’s performance so enduring. This was a Wonder Woman who could save you from Nazis or aliens and then turn around, look you in the eye, ask you if you were okay and make you feel that you were truly worth something in the process. It’s one of the reasons why I’m afraid for Wonder Woman ever to be cast again, because I just don’t know who can bring that same kind of warmth and grace to the character.

And that’s what Wonder Woman means to me.

I never followed Wonder Woman’s solo comics, but always enjoyed reading her adventures with the Justice League of America. I started picking up her solo book when Greg Rucka took over. Rucka’s tales overflowed with mythology and political intrigue and action and character drama. But near the end, things got a bit derailed — and this can be said of all almost all of DC’s books at the time — by tie-ins to DC’s company-wide Infinite Crisis event.

Leading up to Infinite Crisis, Maxwell Lord — leader of the cloak-and-dagger organization known as Checkmate — secretly established mental control over Superman. He could flip it on and off like a switch, using Superman whenever he chose. (Superman had no idea this was happening to him.) At one point, for example, he used Superman to nearly beat Batman to death. When the Justice League finally figured out what was going on and confronted Lord, Lord took control of Superman and sent him after Wonder Woman. With Superman out of control and under Lord’s absolute command, she knew that Lord could literally use Superman to cripple the entire world if he chose. So, to break the spell once and for all, she broke Lord’s neck. Boom. Done. But. Part of Lord’s contingency plan involved his apparent murder at the hands of Wonder Woman being broadcast all over television. In that instant, Wonder Woman went from being one of our greatest heroes to suddenly being Miss Misunderstood Public Enemy Number One.

Wonder Woman’s comic ended with issue 226, which also saw the departure of Rucka. Last year it was started again at issue 1 with Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy) writing and Terry and Rachel Dodson on art.

And for my money, no writer has ever understood Wonder Woman better than Allan Heinberg.

First, let me take a brief Batman detour. (Don’t I always?)

Look at Marvel’s Spider-Man movies. We can all relate to Peter Parker. We’ve all had times where we felt that our best was never enough. We’ve all been in situations where our hearts were in the right place but things still went wrong. Or take the X-Men films as another example. At some point in each of our lives, there’s been a time where we felt like we didn’t fit in. Those movies were so successful because people could relate to the characters.

None of the previous Batman films had captured that kind of accessibility, because Batman isn’t the easiest character to relate to. He’s a billionaire who dresses like a bat to terrorize criminals. But then Batman Begins happened, and everything changed. Batman Begins went right to the heart of Bruce Wayne without compromising the power or the seriousness of Batman. It established Batman not as tool of vengeance but as a symbol of hope. Between Christopher Nolan’s thoughtful direction and Christian Bale’s outstanding physical and emotional dedication to the role, we finally got a Bruce Wayne we could relate to. (And if the twice-used flash of a young Bruce listening to his father’s heartbeat through the stethoscope doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you might not be alive.) Begins wasn’t about what Batman could do. It was about who Bruce Wayne was. Nolan and Bale made Batman human in a way that no previous written or filmed version of the character had been able to accomplish.

And it’s something, I think, that needed to happen for Wonder Woman. Could she be made accessible again without compromising the character?

Yes. And thank you, Allan Heinberg, for figuring out how to do it.

In the first issue of Heinberg’s run, a year has passed since Diana killed Maxwell Lord. Her younger Amazonian sister, Donna Troy, has taken on the mantle of Wonder Woman. (Terry and Rachel Dodson’s two-page spread of a caped, armed and armored Donna sweeping over a military barricade in the first issue almost sent me into second puberty.) It’s the first time in a long, long time that I’d gone back and read a comic over again as soon as I’d finished it. Between Heinberg’s cracker-jack pacing and dialogue and the Dodsons’ gorgeous art, it was the most fun I’d ever had reading Wonder Woman. And at the end of the issue, we find out what has happened to Diana. In a nod to her secret identity from the TV series, she’s hiding in plain sight as Agent Diana Prince of the Department of Metahuman Affairs.

As good as that first issue is, the second is even better. It begins with a flashback of Diana talking to Batman, shortly after she has given up the Wonder Woman mantle to Donna. (The “Cassie” she mentions is Cassandra Sandsmark, the daughter of Zeus and a human archaeologist who fights alongside the Teen Titans as Wonder Girl.)

Batman: How long are you going to be spying on them?

Diana: I’m not spying on them. I’m just making sure they’re all right. What’s your excuse?

Batman: I’m just making sure you’re all right.

Diana: Bruce …

Batman: I thought you’d walked away from all this, Diana.

Diana: I walked away from being Wonder Woman. Not from Donna and Cassie.

Batman: Do they know that?

Diana: It’s better they don’t. That way they can move on with their lives — start over — without having to be judged for my mistakes.

Batman: So, killing Maxwell Lord was a mistake?

Diana: Some people think so.

Batman: What do you think?

Diana: I think the only way I can accomplish my mission is if I don’t have to be Princess Diana of Themyscira or Wonder Woman. If I can just be me.

Batman: Who is that, Diana?

Diana: When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

Batman: Maybe I can help. [He hands her a badge bearing Diana Prince’s name.]

Diana: Diana Prince?

Batman: Sarge Steel is putting the Department of Metahuman Affairs back together. As Agent Diana Prince, you’d be able to do almost everything you used to do, without actually having to be Wonder Woman.

Diana: And you’d have a contact on the inside.

Batman: The thought had occurred to me.

Diana: The glasses had to be Clark’s idea.

Batman: He just wants you to be happy, Diana.

Diana: I don’t even know what that means.

Batman: Maybe it’s time you found out.

And right there, Allan Heinberg did for Wonder Woman what Batman Begins did for Batman. He took Wonder Woman — the princess, the goddess, the diplomat, the warrior, the immortal, the hero — and made her human and accessible without compromising her character.

He didn’t make her any less majestic.

He didn’t make her any less powerful.

He simply found a way to tell a story that would let Wonder Woman come back into contact with the person inside. She’d spent so long being defined as Wonder Woman — and defined, too, by all the responsibilities and expectations that entails — that maybe, just maybe, she’d now have time to find herself. Thank you for that, Allan Heinberg. Thank you for bringing the fun back into reading Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman by Terry and Rachel Dodson

But all good things must come to an end. Heinberg’s story — “Who Is Wonder Woman?” — fell far enough behind schedule that DC chose to snip Heinberg’s story in progress after issue 4. (The fifth and final installment of Heinberg’s story will appear later this year, outside of the regular comic, in a special Wonder Woman annual.) Writer Will Pfeifer (Catwoman) and artists Geraldo Jones and Jean Diaz stepped in with a mediocre fill-in for issue 5 before popular novelist Jodi Picoult took over beginning with issue 6. Drew Johnson, who drew the book during Greg Rucka’s run, came on board as the artist for 6 and 7 (out this week) with the Dodsons still providing covers until they come back on board for interiors, too, for issue 8 (the last week of April).

Picoult’s heart is in the right place, but so far her issues have left me kind of cold. I don’t know if there’s anything in particular I can point to. It’s just that under Heinberg’s relaunch, a tone was established. Picoult’s carrying on what Heinberg started, but when I finish the issues I don’t feel as satisfied and I’m not as excited and I’m not mad that I have to wait until the next issue to find out what happens next. And that’s what a good comic book should do. And again, I don’t blame Picoult for this. It seems to me that she was kind of thrown into it, and I certainly believe she’s doing the best she can — particularly since she’s writing outside of her regular medium in an entirely different kind of format.

Picoult departs after issue 10, with J. Torres filling in for 11 and 12. (You can read his comments to Newsarama right here.)

And then, with issue 13, here comes Gail Simone. Whammy! Gail, you have kicked my ass so many times with your writing and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store for Diana.

What really made Allan Heinberg’s issues sing for me is that I honestly felt that for the first time in a very long time, Diana was being written by someone who truly loved the character and felt the same sense of wonder I did for her as a kid. I know that Gail loves the character, too, and her comments in last night’s Newsarama interview are everything I want to hear. (I’m especially glad to hear that she talked at length with Heinberg when she got the gig.)

So. In closing. Thank you, Allan Heinberg, for writing the best damn Wonder Woman stories I’ve ever read and for bringing your love of the character into every issue of your all-too-brief run. I wish you could have been on the book for a lot longer than you were able to be.

And Gail, congratulations on getting the gig of a lifetime. You earned this, and you deserve this, and I know you’ll make us proud. Just don’t forget that for all of Diana’s power and majesty, the true wonder of the character lies within her warmth, grace and goodness. She’s not just the ultimate woman. She represents the best in all of us.