Saturday, October 16, 2010

Despite Some Admirable Qualities, Wonder Woman: Challenge Of The Gods Flops.

The Good: Decent character development, Nice attempt to shake up narrative structure, Moments of heroics
The Bad: Narrative shakeup fails, Simple plot, Missing chapter, Largely unimpressive artwork
The Basics: Very average, Wonder Woman: Challenge Of The Gods has Princess Diana on a classic hero journey which is uninteresting until the final chapter.

As my Wonder Woman year continues, I find that reading some of the high-quality graphic novels, like Justice (click here for that review!) might be spoiling me. After all, it is hard to go back from lush paintings on every panel to something more akin to a comic strip. Yet, as I picked up Wonder Woman: Challenge Of The Gods, that is exactly what I found myself feeling. The disappointment from the artwork was something I tried to shake off, but given how the first chapter in this trade paperback anthology has an annoying narrative technique, this became more difficult to dismiss than I would have liked.

Challenge Of The Gods picks up where Gods And Mortals (click here for that review) left off, with Diana, having been dubbed Wonder Woman by the American media living in Boston, Massachusetts in 1987. Wonder Woman's backstory was begun - or rebooted - in the prior anthology, so there is no relation to the Wonder Woman of the original (pre-1987) incarnation. In fact, in Challenge Of The Gods, the reader learns that Diana must be under forty years old. I tend not to gripe much about the reboot of the franchise as I do about how it affects other portions of the DC universe. After all, Superman had adventures with Wonder Woman before this incarnation of her, so how is that supposed to work? It might be a moot point in most books, but Challenge Of The Gods is where Wonder Woman meets the Justice League of America and the story is very dated to 1987 (including Diana having a meeting with President Reagan). And while these trade paperback anthologies are supposed to provide the complete story of Wonder Woman in order, they are anything but.

Opening with "Time Passages," the writers explore what Wonder Woman went through in the wake of the Ares Project. While the military runs tests on Diana, like having her block the weapon's fire from three automatic weapons firing at once with her bracelet and pitting her against a tank, Diana becomes a cultural icon appearing on Carson and lecturing at local schools. But even as the chapter diverges to lead into Diana's next threat, in the form of Barbara Minvera, they catch up on Steven Trevor's story and mention a whole anti-superhero plot which Diana helped to foil. The thing here is that the allusions to the G. Gordon Godfrey incident make the reader feel like they are missing something vital, when it is probably just a limited crossover event which DC was promoting at the time.

"Time Passages" shakes up the usual narrative technique of the comic book by presenting vignettes with columns of writing - letters, memos, diary entries - with fewer images telling the stories and no sense of narrative movement. Instead of using the medium effectively to have dialogue paired with flowing images, this first chapter is a grind to get through because it "tells" instead of "shows." This is an unfortunate and unlikable chapter.

Unfortunately, it sets up most of the rest of the book for the reader to return to utter mediocrity. Challenge Of The Gods is an anthology of Wonder Woman issues 8 - 14. Issues 9 - 13 (chapters 2 - 6 in this anthology) are very obviously hero stories of the most mundane type. Cheetah attacks Wonder Woman when Barbara Minerva attempts to swindle Diana out of her golden lasso without understanding its true powers. Following this, Diana is recalled to Themyscira and while there, Pan nudges Zeus into noticing Diana. When Zeus makes an advance on Diana (which she resists), the goddesses who birthed Diana send her on a quest.

That quest takes Diana into the bowels of the underworld through Doom's Door on Themyscira. On the other side of it, Diana encounters all forms of mythological villains. Her mother, Hippolyte, follows her. In later incarnations of Wonder Woman, Hippolyte was Hippolyta, so why it is different here is a mystery to me. Anyway, while Diana is on her grand quest, Steve Trevor and Lt. Candy grow closer and Diana learns of the origins of her name and her outfit.

These chapters are all very typical, very banal hero quest stories. The thing is, there's no clear quest for most of the story and Diana meanders from experience to experience while her quest is broken up with progress among the gods and Hippolyte's progress in following her. But the quest culminates in the revelation of the true villain behind both the obstacles Diana faces in the underworld and the tensions among the gods. At the climax of her quest, at the end of chapter six, Diana is charged with her final task. Rather annoyingly, Chapter seven opens with Diana returning from completing that task.

Apparently, Diana's interactions with the Manhunter were part of a different book or crossover event - from the context clues, a Justice League event, one assumes - which is not included and as a result, the reader is set up for a lot of disappointment when they turn the page.

As one who has no problem panning things, how did a trade paperback anthology with unimpressive artwork and stories I generally found underwhelming score so highly? Simple: chapter seven. The seventh chapter has a lot of character and it is more than an expository space where our Diana is told a story by a dead Diana. No, in the final chapter of Challenge Of The Gods, Hippolyte and Heracles square off and the result is not a fight, but an actual story of growing out of the past. In Gods And Mortals, Heracles is a crazed rapist who enslaves the Amazons and now, after thousands of years, he re-enters the narrative and his story and the character interplay between him and Hippolyte works wonderfully. The story is surprisingly tight and smarter than the average comic book by far.

Still, it is not enough to recommend this book. While Challenge Of The Gods helpfully includes a character profile on Cheetah, it does little else to entice buyers. The colors of the inks are muted and this book has a newsprint quality to its pages. In addition to artwork that is very simple - scenes with multiple goddesses and several Amazons are just visually problematic - the sense of movement is often limited. As well, the book is filled with annoying comic book conceits like characters saying "eh" constantly which do not translate well for serious readers.

While there is enough in Challenge Of The Gods to progress the Wonder Woman story forward in ways that ought to be considered essential, the book is just too basic for serious readers.

For other trade paperback anthologies which feature Wonder Woman, please check out my reviews of:
Who Is Wonder Woman by Allan Heinberg
Wonder Woman: Love And Murder By Jodi Pocault
Amazons Attack! by Will Pfeifer
Wonder Woman The Circle By Gail Simone
Ends Of The Earth By Gail Simone


For other graphic novel reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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