Thursday, June 30, 2011

Inventive And Clever, J. Michael Straczynski Reinvents Wonder Woman, Knowingly Altered, In Wonder Woman: Odyssey - Volume One!

The Good: Great story, Good character development, Generally decent artwork.
The Bad: Underdetailed panels, Shrunken covers, Obvious setup.
The Basics: Wonder Woman gets a retooling when an ancient villain radically alters the timeline, nearly destroying the Amazons, forcing a fugitive Diana to learn how to be a hero!

When it comes to comic book stories, there are few permutations on the norm than I trust less than the "alternate universe" storylines. The entire history and mythos of recognizable and lovable characters will not be eliminated on a whim and asking readers to believe that is utterly ridiculous. In the DC Universe, there are occasional imaginative stories that are clearly labeled as alternate universe ("Elseworlds") stories, like Wonder Woman: Amazonia (reviewed here!). In the current incarnation of Wonder Woman, however, there is another alternate universe storyline going on and it is much more ambitious and specific. The first few issues of this new reboot are now anthologized in Wonder Woman: Odyssey - Volume One.

I have been waiting for this particular Wonder Woman volume for several months, from long before I started working a the comic book shop. I was enthusiastic when I learned that J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote Babylon 5 had taken over the writing of Wonder Woman. Eager to see what the talented writer of engaging serialized stories could do, I sat down and read Wonder Woman: Odyssey - Volume One in a single sitting and thus far, my main disappointment was that all twelve issues of this storyline are not included in a single volume! Volume One compiles Wonder Woman issues 600 - 606 with an entire new look, feel and storyline for the Wonder Woman (Princess Diana character)!

Diana, a young woman, evades a pack of killers who self-destruct when confronted, leaving her to question the masked elders in hiding underground. Unwilling to give her the information she requests, Diana visits the Oracle, who shows her the answer to her most pressing question. To illustrate who she is, the Oracle shows Diana the past, wherein Themiscyra is abandoned by Aphrodite, which allows men to invade Paradise Island. There, Hippolyta sacrifices herself to get the child Diana away and to prevent the secrets of the island and the Amazons from being compromised. Diana decides to hunt the men from the vision, having figured they are the men who are currently hunting down and killing the dispersed Amazons. But en route to Ankara, Diana must sacrifice her search for the truth in order to save a small enclave of Amazons.

In the group of Amazons, Alera (a priestess) is dying. The Amazons flee their position in a hidden temple, which allows Diana to take on the mercenary army hunting them. When the fleeing Amazons discover their guides have been killed, Diana learns that she has abilities her peers do not, seeing the deadly Keres who have been killing in the area and who are invisible to everyone else. The Keres drag Diana's soul to hell and there she must learn to value her own life, a concept she immediately illustrates by trading herself for the besieged Amazons. With that trade, Diana comes face to face with the mercenary Colonel who torched Themiscyra and in the fight that ensues, the puppetmaster of the altered timeline, the Morrigan, is revealed!

What J. Michael Straczynski does so well in Wonder Woman: Odyssey - Volume One is that he tells a story that has actual character development. I was, for example, initially annoyed that the entire Wonder Woman suit was radically redesigned for this book and included a jacket (like Superboy!) that was lost in one of the very first stories of the book. It annoyed me and I asked myself, "why did they bother to include a jacket in the redesign, if Diana was just going to shed it?!" The answer is that this version of Diana is developing and has had a life of at least eighteen years before the first panel of this book existed. In other words, Straczynski has an idea of who Diana has been in her entire life before she knew that the timeline was altered and when the changes occur, even the minor ones needed some physical symbol.

Straczynski almost instantly wins over the fans of Wonder Woman by being straightforward with them. Through the Oracle, Straczynski reveals that this is an alternate Wonder Woman, that this is not the innate Wonder Woman and that her new existence is the result of some monstrous crime to the timeline. That he doesn't insult our intelligence either by erasing the decades of history that came before or try to pass this off as the way Diana/Wonder Woman was intended to be is deeply refreshing. The mission, then, seems reasonable to have the expected resolution of Diana restoring her true history and as the reader reads this volume, we are able to search for clues to discover exactly what was changed and what the effects of those changes have been. Unlike the current DC crossover event, Flashpoint, the writers are not trying to sell the readers on the idea that this is not an altered state for the characters.

Straczynski achieves many of his storytelling goals with some truly beautiful prose. To set up and explain the storyline, Straczynski and cowriter Phil Hester have the Oracle very poetically reveal "When the Gods play music, they play it on the instruments of our bodies, on our past. . . present . . . future. And from time to time, they . . . change the rhythm" (prologue, "Culture Shock"). This is a beautiful sentiment, one which has Straczynski's fingerprints all over it and fortunately for the readers, this level of dialogue and philosophy is maintained throughout the book. While there are fights and they are magnificent, the journey has roots and there is a sense that Diana clings to a moral code, even if she is ruthless in protecting the Amazon refugees.

In addition to a strong sense of character, Diana develops even in this incarnation of Wonder Woman. She recalls her earliest memories fighting against the injustices she encountered when she was raised on Earth. And she feel guilt when Amazons sacrifice themselves to save her, making her both vulnerable and deeply human. Either way, she is easy to empathize with and she does change from who she is initially characterized as. She is spirited and the joy of Wonder Woman: Odyssey - Volume One is largely in watching this version of Diana grow into what we know about her (that she does not yet realize!).

The artwork in Wonder Woman: Odyssey - Volume One is largely good. The colors are universally amazing: vibrant and incredible. There is a good sense of movement both within panels and from panel to panel and Diana's new outfit looks pretty good. The only real drawback is that by Chapter 5, the team of Don Kramer, Eduardo Pansia, and Daniel HDR seem to be tired. Starting in that chapter, there are panels that are sloppy or, more frequently, underdetailed. In the failing panels, Diana looks like an anime character, not a fully-realized and redesigned comic book icon. As well, the covers for the original comic books from this series are presented as keyhole pictures which do not breathe on the page. Fortunately, the painting-quality variant covers are contained in a cover gallery at the end of the book and make this volume worth its price twice over!

Also in this anthology presentation is a write-up on the changes to Wonder Woman and her costume and that is interesting to read. While it is occasionally simple, Wonder Woman: Odyssey - Volume One is mostly the story of a young woman learning her heritage, fighting to protect the remnants of her people and, along the way, shedding a jacket, picking up a lasso and becoming the hero so many know and love, while still leaving enough to keep readers hankering for the concluding chapters in Volume Two!

For other Wonder Woman volumes, please be sure to check out:
Gods And Mortals By George Perez
Who Is Wonder Woman? By Allan Heinberg
The Hiketeia By Greg Rucka


For other book reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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