By Jill Thompson
In honor of Wonder Woman’s 75th Anniversary, DC has been returning to the character’s roots. Literally. Over the course of the past year, fans have been given multiple retellings of Wonder Woman’s origin. There was Grant Morrison and Yanick Parquette’s long delayed Earth One graphic novel and Renee DeLiz and Ray Dillon’s digital series Legend of Wonder Woman. This summer Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott also begin revisiting Wonder Woman’s backstory for DC’s Rebirth initiative. Yet, while all these projects had good intentions the results were more on the mixed side. In addition, their release within a relatively short period of time begged the question of just how many times readers needed to see poor Steve Trevor crash into Paradise Island? To be fair, how Rucka and Soctt handled this moment was one of the highlights of their run. Still the idea of watching it again so soon was growing as appealing as another illustration of Thomas and Martha Wayne being gunned down in Crime Alley. Yet, on Wednesday DC released another take on Diana’s earliest days, an original graphic novel Wonder Woman: The True Amazon. The good news is that writer/artist Jill Thompson avoids many of the familiar set pieces readers have come to expect from a Wonder Woman origin. This is not a tale of an Amazon learning to comprehend the external world of men, but of a woman taking stock of her interior self. As such, Thompson presents a young, inexperienced Diana which is in many ways a sharp departure from tradition. However, by doing so she locates a novel and poignant expression for the essence of Wonder Woman’s character.
All narratives of Wonder Woman begin, though, not with the princess, but her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Thompson hues to the basic contours of the Amazons’ early days, revisiting their conflicts with Greek patriarchy, as represented here by Herakles and Zeus. Thompson does dispense with the overt sexual violence that soured the opening stretch of Earth One, preferring to leave it percolating beneath the men (and god’s) masculine bluster. In this version, it is Hera who provides the means, through her brother Poseidon, for the Amazons to find rest and solitude on the magical realm of Themyscira. And thus Paradise Island was born.
Paradise, however, remained imperfect. Hippolyta is restless, wishing for a child. Some nights she would wander the beaches, forming a baby out of sand. The section on Diana’s birth is a good example of how Thompson tweaks tradition without losing its heart. One night, laying by her sculpted child, Hippolyta sings a song of longing which echoes through the air, enchanting the sirens, who bring it to Poseidon. The sea god is so moved that the tides cease churning, which in turns allows the queen’s song to be heard by all her Amazonian sisters. Now the whole island raises its voice to the sky and the gods of Olympus cry tears of sympathy. These tears are what bring Diana to life. Diana’s very birth is brought about by compassion and empathy, two of the traits by which her co-creator William Moulton Marston wished to define her.
Virtue, however, often requires a bit of a learning curve. No one is born a paradigm of nobility. Almost all accounts of Diana’s background skip over her childhood, going directly from birth to adulthood. As a result, fans have never seen her formative years, in the same manner creators have offered various takes on the evolution of Clark Kent into Superman. Regardless of who is telling the tale, from Marston to Rucka, adult Diana steps onto the page a fully formed heroine. Thompson tales the opposite approach. Her Diana starts out in a much less sympathetic register.
Think of the cliché of the spoiled only child. Now imagine what if that child was not only an only child to its parent, but also the sole child amongst an entire population full of plenty. Naturally, she will be doted on and treated as the most precious resource of all. Thus, the Amazons, Hippolyta included, pamper Diana. When the child does wrong, she is easily forgiven. Left with no boundaries and endless affection, Diana worries only about herself. As she grows older, she begins to explore the less traveled sections of the island, battling monsters not for the security of her sisters but the honors and praise such victories might bring. Diana is convinced that she is entitled to the love of everyone, a disillusion that the Amazons do little to dissuade.
This version of Diana is starkly unlikable which might upset traditional purists. However, Thompson is offering up an example of what happens when concern for others is absent. In recent years, Marston has justifiably received much attention for his pioneering representation of women. However, anchoring his feminism was a larger belief in the virtues of compassion. The Amazons are more praise worthy than the world of men, because they value compassion over brutality. Building common bonds, not bombs, will heal the world. This is why Wonder Woman fights for American democracy against Axis tyranny. As flawed as our system of governance was (and still is) it does offer a channel through which peace might be found. How Marston expressed all this on page was complicated, and sometimes contradictory, however, that does not change the core of his ideal. A world torn by war needed unity and granting equality to women was a necessary step along that path.
First the Amazons’ champion needed to learn what compassion was. This lesson comes through the character of Alethea, a groom at the royal stables. She is the one woman on the island who refuses to be taken in by Diana’s conceited charms. Naturally this infuriates Diana. When buying her affection fails, Diana takes a subtler approach. She begins assisting with the horses, work which gradually shifts from being showy to emotionally rewarding. The reader witnesses the first movements of Diana to broader understanding. Then the Amazonian Commemoration of Warriors games arrive and Diana reverts to her competitive self. However, a “diversionary” trick on her part leads to unintended disaster. The resulting aftermath is handled with care and poignancy by Thompson. Her illustrations of wounded and dead Amazons being carted away evokes the clearing of a battlefield, effectively laying the seeds for Wonder Woman’s distaste for the horrors of war. More immediately, Diana cracks under the weight of her misguided ego. The crown of victory is hers, but it is as hollow any forged by men.
The strength of this sequence rests with Thompson’s evocative art. Lushly painted over line drawings, the style is similar what she has been employing recently in Beasts of Burden. As the Amazons take stock after the tragic chariot race, Thompson employs large panels which highlight the causalities. One woman is paralyzed while another is left brain damaged. Thompson tastefully portrays these injuries while still communicating their toll. This carries over into the portrayal of Diana’s grief for the fallen Amazon. One of the most beautiful sections of the book depicts Diana saying goodbye to her fellow Amazon. The text is minimal, highlighting the emotion of the moment. Thompson also returns to the imagery of tears as a moving signifier of Diana’s newfound expression of compassion.
Thompson’s art rises to the occasion not only in these somber sequences, but in the lively action orientated ones as well. Thompson’s long career has often required her to dive into the realms of fantasy and that experience is on ample display in these pages. Her rendering of Poseidon as more sea creature than human is quite impressive, especially in the splash page where his fish shaped ship bursts out of the ocean to guide the Amazons to safety. The various monsters of Diana’s quests are imaginative feats of design. At the same time, she captures the quiet everyday aspect of Amazon life, celebrating their prowess and leisure without the leering gaze which complicated Paquette’s artwork for Earth One.
By the end of The True Amazon, Diana has arrived at her first tentative steps as Wonder Woman. Thompson charts this journey through less familiar territory, yet, the lesson remains the same. As long as our points of reference remain conceitedly fixed on our own needs, we shall never advance. Peace comes through care for others. This is what animated Marston’s Wonder Woman and what 75 years later remains at the heart of Thompson’s conception of the character. Finally by refusing to give readers a plaster saint of the Amazons, Thompson gives them a heroine ultimately more relatable.