Wonder Woman 23

Brian Azzarello’s tenure on Wonder Woman has been a controversial and complex one, and as the title completes its second year it shows no signs of stopping.

What has he done this time? Is it worth seeing for myself? Will I fall asleep atop a stack of tear-stained Greg Rucka trades tonight? The answers to all that and more within.

Though he appeared over ten months ago, it’s taken until now for Wonder Woman to finally marshal her forces against the First Born. As befits a struggle of such Olympian proportions, this issue is almost entirely devoted to the struggle between Diana and her eldest brother.

The battle reveals Azzarello’s rather dramatic taste in plotting. Though the issue assembles an impressive force for both sides, the action almost always revolves around the First Born and whoever he’s fighting. You won’t see Diana and Orion teaming or much of either’s struggles against the First Born’s awesome hyena soldiers. Instead it’s a series of one on one fights designed to boost tension and make the central arguments of the story.

One of the most important misunderstandings about the superhero genre is that it’s, by its nature, filled with mindless, meaningless battles for the sake of spectacle. I can’t deny that there have been many over the years but, at their best, battle sequences are not clashes of arms but of wills. It’s good that Azzarello understands this, however the story this battle tells is a simple one told in a confusing manner rather than a real head scratcher.

The dialogue is snappy, if occasionally hollow. There are plenty of fun one-liners, but War is really the only one who’s dialogue couldn’t be said by someone else. Indeed, Diana seems not quite herself. She berates the First Born, “You are a monster! Selfish! Cruel! Entitled!” It’s actually pretty standard Wonder Woman, but then she follows up, “You’re everything I’m not!” Azzarello may be trying to establish the First Born as a kind of natural opposite to Diana, but it’s hard to buy Wonder Woman bragging like that.

With what’s effectively the second season of Wonder Woman ending, it’s a great blessing that Cliff Chiang is handling the art for this issue. While the other artists who’ve stepped in have each been passable, this issue needed Chiang’s consistency. Chiang’s stylized  artwork has been one of the things that has been fairly universally praised about this series and it’s not hard to see why. Though things tend to get a little blurry at a distance, Chiang brings a weight to the art that can really be felt. It’s not just the battle either. Despite the limited space and neutral expression, the panel of the First Born on page two recognizably places him in the slouch he’s sporting in the next panel. Gentle sway of his shoulders and a visceral sense of mass alone are enough to seed the image into your mind.

There’s an almost pop art sensibility to Chiang’s strong simple lines that comes out best during one panel of the First Born punching Orion. If there’s a major flaw to be had with the artwork, it’s that Chiang follows Azzarello’s lead and only includes characters as they’re necessary, leaving the scene mysteriously empty on several pages.

The struggle is visceral, the backgrounds effective, and the moments of family drama touching. That said, if Chiang’s artwork has never appealed to you (for some reason), this issue probably won’t change that.

Overall Wonder Woman #23 is an exhilarating, but ultimately shallow capper to the title’s second year. The entire First Born plotline has actually been fairly weak and this issue reflects that, however, it does share the strengths of the last twelve months as well. The ideas are strong, the art is beautiful, and Azzarello has done some fascinating set up. I wish I could say that this was a great issue rather than a great teaser for ‘next season,’ but so it goes.

If you’ve been invested in the First Born story or you’re interested in where Diana goes from here, you should pick this issue up. Otherwise, I’m afraid that it lives on the fence, at the mercy of your discretion.

 

 

 

From here on out we’re in spoiler territory, if you don’t have the stomach for it you should turn back now.

 

 

Alright?

 

 

Alright.

 

 

As I said above, this issue is most interesting for how it ends, and that means spoilers . While Azzarello and Chiang have crafted a rather epic backdrop for this confrontation, it’s distinctly lacking a sense of importance. Lennox is barely even mentioned and the First Born remains something of an empty vessel of a villain. So why did I give this issue such a comparatively positive review up above? One word.

Good God, Y'all!

Good God, Y’all!

Brian Azzarello’s reinvention of Ares in the New 52 has been one of his most interesting changes to the Wonder Woman mythology. Like many of his changes, I’m not sure if it’s for the better or the worse, but it’s a bold one that serves the story that he’s telling.

War carries this issue. He’s interesting, oddly charming, and gets most of the best lines. It’s clear that Azzarello wanted to get the most out of him, however he obviously had his reasons for that.  It’s interesting just how deep into the ‘old soldier’ persona War sinks this issue. He seems oddly wistful for times gone by and much more Euripides than Kratos. It works, like much of Azzarello’s writing on this title, on some basic mythological level, but, when you think about it, it’s hard to come up with what’s so great about it. I mean, yeah, it is pretty cool to see the god of war concept include god of veterans but what changed War from the nonsensically helmed muscle man of Wonder Woman #0 into the weary old soul we’ve seen since? I have a feeling that we’ll either be exploring the concept in depthtt or completely and awkwardly ignoring it within a few issues.

To be honest, I kind of like the idea of War having a mentor mentee relationship with Diana, it gives her another reason she’s so special and adds to that ‘foot in both worlds’ idea that has been steadily growing within her mythology. That said, the concept worked so well in Wonder Woman #0 because Diana chose love over violence and rejected War’s way.

Here, though, War is the one who’s teaching Diana restraint. It just feels weird. Hippolyta and the amazons have clearly been de-emphasized in this version of Wonder Woman, but this is the first time where I’ve really felt that Diana has been thrown under the bus in her own title. I’m certain there are countless fans asking themselves where I’ve been, but I stand by that.

The New 52 hasn’t been kind to Diana outside of her own title, but, at least there she’s generally been portrayed as a heroine of incredible competence, if not always personality. However, the problem with defining Diana by her perfection is that when you inevitably need her to have a flaw, however minor, it sinks her character.

It’s actually quite an awkward situation. Wonder Woman looks bad for having to take combat advice from the god of war.

Think about that for a minute.

If Lady Shiva kicks the shit out of Batman and he learns from it and gets stronger we respect both Shiva and Batman more for it, however if Wonder Woman  has the slightest imperfection and has to turn to one of the best authorities there is it feels like she’s not good enough.

Sad as this is, I really can’t avoid the feeling that it misses the essential greatness of Diana. Diana doesn’t have to win to be awesome but I think that her moral compass needs something a whole lot more impressive than the First Born to shake it.

One interesting change I noticed was the usage of the name Wonder Woman. Azzarello’s had something of a love affair with names and I think that it’s telling that when Diana asks War to call her little one he addresses her by her super hero moniker. He previously used Amazon and, perhaps notably, the First Born also insists on Wonder Woman. The only characters who refer to her as Diana are Zola and Hell.

Given that one of the first lines from our protagonist was a demand that she be called by her name, it seems notable which characters use her name and how it’s changed, especially with the focus on responsibility in this issue.

And speaking of responsibility is the First Born just free to go on killing? I mean the guy besieged London! Actually why hasn’t another hero dealt with that in the time Diana was on New Genesis? I suppose I’ll let it pass but it does strain belief at least a little.

Still, nothing in this issue is as interesting as the track it lays for the next arc of the series. The idea of Diana as the Olympian goddess of war is definitely good twist. After All, the current favorite idea in Wonder Woman seems to be reconciling her warrior upbringing with her loving nature. Oftentimes this seems to fail because writers overplay that warrior nature, however Azzarello has set it up so that the warrior is something she has heretofore incorporated successfully but now will have to bear in a more extreme fashion.

It strongly suits the Azzarello formula of playing on mythic juxtapositions to create intriguing concepts; however I’m not sure that it’s a good idea long term. DC just modified Wonder Woman’s origin. While I admit that she hasn’t found her footing the same way that many of her colleges have, part of finding that footing is having that origin supported. Changing up her role and powers now just feels like another admission by DC that they don’t think Wondie has enough potential as she is.

While I really love the idea, I think that it would make a much stronger mini-series than an in-continuity move for her ongoing. What’s more, it’s ill timed, there’s just not enough history with this Diana to make a seismic shift like this and have it stick.

I’ll be interested to see how things go in the coming months but I’m starting to have my doubts about this series. I honestly think that everyone would probably be happier if Azzarello passed Wondie on to another writer and started an ongoing about the Olympians. I’d read it, WW fans would have another chance, and Diana would actually have the beginnings of a family of titles.

I think that no matter where things go, this issue will look more important down the line, however for now it’s a mediocre issue that serves as an excellent showcase for War.

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