By Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette & Nathan Fairbairn
The latest in DC’s line of Earth One original graphic novels arrived in stores this past week. Similar to its popular predecessors, Wonder Woman aims to take an iconic character and reimagine her origin story for contemporary readers. Standing outside continuity, Earth One grants creators the freedom to wholly reinvent elements of the subjects’ mythos. Given these circumstances, Grant Morrison would seem a natural fit for the project, as he often does his best work when he is not beholden to the constraints of continuity. Simply give a great artist (as he has here with Yanick Paquette) and let his imagination run wild. To a degree that is what happens in Wonder Woman, though the end result, while sometimes enjoyable, leaves a lot to be desired.
The narrative opens with a flashback to ancient history and the embarrassing defeat suffered by the Amazons at the hands of Hercules. This incident has roots in the Greek mythic cycle where the theft of Queen Hippolyta’s fabled golden girdle (or belt depending on translation) is the ninth in his series of Twelve Labors. As the myth has been preserved, it is Hercules who is the victim of deceit; he has charmed the queen into surrendering her treasure when, the goddess (and Hercules’ nemesis) Hera instigates the Amazons with rumors. The Amazons raise their arms and the hero slays Hippolyta before helping himself to her girdle. Greek myth has never scored high in the proto-feminist department and this legend is a good example of that trait. After all, Hercules’ life would have been much easier if Hera had been a good girl and turned a blind eye to her husband’s philandering in the first place.
Yet, despite all this, this legend has been at the center of the Amazons’ history since William Moulton Marston brought them into the DC Universe 75 years ago. Marston, however, gave the tale a thorough feminist reworking. Now instead of being manipulated by Hera, the Amazons are delivered through the intervention of Aphrodite. They soundly defeat the army of men. For Marston and artist Harry G. Peter, this thrashing is left to the readers’ imagination. Paquette, though, illustrates the scene in grisly fashion, as Hippolyta uses her chains to strangle her captor. This violent blood-lust is a marked departure from Marston’s conception of the Amazons as a peaceful population and as such strikes an odd opening note for the story.
However, in many other ways, Morrison draws from the early Marston material. He has a clear love for these Golden Age comics. Beyond the general contours of Wonder Woman’s origin, which is borrowed from the Marston era, Paquette litters the pages with callbacks. Visually Paradise Island follows Peter’s model of blending Ancient Greek architecture with futuristic technology. Hippolyta’s Magic Sphere (essentially a high-tech magic mirror) gets a sleek makeover. Paquette lends these Amazonian inventions an organic look which matches the more classical decor. In addition, there are several details which reference Marston’s work. The kanga jousting, Amazons playing bullets and bracelets, and women dressed as deer for the annual Diana’s Hunt are all specific nods to Marston. Morrison and Paquette even provides their own twists on Marston’s sometimes kinky lesbian subtext. That said, Morrison could never dream up anything to equal Marston’s scene of Amazons assuming that tennis rackets are “sissy spankers” and gleefully putting them to use. “Suffering Sappho” indeed.
The part of Marston’s legacy which Morrison honors the best, though, is his use of Etta (now Elizabeth) Candy. Introduced early in Wonder Woman’s career, Etta quickly became a fixture of Diane’s Golden Age adventures. A plus size student of Holiday College, Etta represented a can-do spirit of boundless pluck, while also demonstrating to young readers how they do not need superpowers to be a heroine. These characteristics carry over to her Earth One counterpart. From the first utterance of her trademark “Woo Woo!” to her lighthearted ribbing of Steve Trevor she provides the heart of the story. For all its dutiful respect for the past, Earth One can sometimes be a bit dry as the virtues/vices of the man’s world are debated. Indeed, the entire narrative is built around a trial of Diane for breaking the rules of Paradise Island, a device which necessities much pontificating. Etta’s charm breaks through such stodginess, injecting a spirit of fun into the proceedings. At the same time, Morrison provides a model for how Etta can be presented as relevant to modern readers without betraying any of what made her special in the first place.
Morrison does not simply rephrase the writings of Marston, but provides his own additions as well. His most noticeable break with tradition is making Trevor black. Race was Marston’s most problematic blind spot, and his Wonder Woman work was not immune to the stereotypes of his day. Morrison’s Trevor is allowed to speak to a history of submission which was not on Marston’s radar and by extension explain his willingness to defend Wonder Woman against the suspicions of his fellow officers. Morrison spells this out a little too neatly in the dialogue, but the observation remains valid. At the same, time Trevor’s personality of deferential awe (“my angel”) is faithful to the spirit of the original.
More disappointing is Morrison’s presentation of Hippolyta. As with Black Panther’s Wakandan monarchy, certain aspects of her character are inherently contradictory. Marston conceived Wonder Woman as not simply an emblem of feminism but also the superiority of American democracy over Axis’ fascism. For him, the two went hand-in-hand. Yet, his ideal government, the matriarchy of Paradise Island, is ruled over by an eternal queen. In fact, it could be argued Paradise Island is actually a theocracy ruled over by Aphrodite, Diana, Athena or some combination thereof. Morrison’s solution to this problem seems to be rendering Hippolyta in rather unflattering terms. At first she appears to be simply concerned for her daughter’s well-being, as well as the traditions of their society.
However, the further the story develops, the more bitter she seems and the bloodlust from the prologue becomes more dominant. At one point, she unleashes Medusa on the man’s world in order to teach Diane a lesson about how quickly men die compared to an Amazon’s eternal lifespan. Essentially, Hippolyta has a monster kill a bunch of innocent people in order to make her daughter reject the company of puny mortals. Perhaps Morrison is tempering Marston’s rose-tinted idealism with the reality that female leaders are no less likely to wage war than their male counterparts. In the end, though, Morrison does not successfully reconcile it with the character resulting in an Amazonian queen whose actions are not only unsympathetic, but sometimes head scratching.
Oh and fans of the modeled from clay origin are going to be disappointed. Morrison provides his own revision which is less satisfying than the one Brian Azzarello gave the New 52 version. In the end, this touches on the main flaw with Wonder Woman Earth One: what Morrison gets right, he does well but does not have anything new to add to the mythos. Where he does make additions, though, he mostly stumbles.
For his part, Paquette does a good job with the art. His illustrations flow smoothly, keeping the narrative clear despite shifts in time. He is especially good at handling the fantasy elements of the Amazons’ home. His panoramic views of Paradise Island owe something to the towering, almost surreal, conceptions of the George Perez run, though Paquette does not attempt Perez’s M.C. Escher-esque distortions of perspective. His character work is mostly good, though, it does occasionally tilt a little too close to cheesecake. Part of this may be another example of how he and Morrison are riffing on the sexual dynamics of the past. One instance of this is the two-page spread which offers readers their first view of Paradise Island, complete with lithe lounging Amazons fully at ease with their bodies. Is it female empowerment or bait for the male gaze? A mix of both? As is often the case, it is difficult to separate entirely.
Morrison and Paquette are a pair of talented creators whose involvement lent high expectations to Wonder Woman Earth One. They make a noble effort, which shines in multiple places, while failing to succeed as a whole.