Well hoss, since you’ve called my bluff, it behooves me to lay my cards on the table: I’m just not a big Wonder Woman person. Restrain your anger, please.
As I believe I’ve mentioned, I had a solid few years right at the height of my youth devoted to straight-ticket Marvel. Nothing but, saving the stray Disney book. You know how it is, maybe you’ve been there too. It really is a whole thing. I came in right at the end of the time when a kid could read the bulk of the line for the price of a generous allowance. I saw the end of that era.
When I started buying some DC, I picked up Wonder Woman and was a loyal reader of the title for almost a decade afterwards. And it wasn’t a grudging purchase, I genuinely enjoyed the book - even if, at all points, I was genially baffled as to a great deal of the proceedings. Always thought much of her continuity was impenetrable, and that’s even after I’d read a fair amount of it. Maybe if I’d started buying earlier, if I had caught any of the Pérez run first time around, I could have formed enough of a relationship to keep going. But as it is, I started buying her book because she was still on the newsstands where I bought my comics, and since I still bought a lot of comics off the local newsstands, that was a deciding factor.
So I came in a good ways through William Messner-Loeb’s run (1992-95). He’s one of our more underrated writers, someone who focused on the human element of his stories at all turns. I was buying as much for the Brian Bolland covers as anything else, truth be told, but you probably could have guessed that. And I bought it through the Mike Deodato period at the tail end of Messner-Loeb, because I generally had and have no problem with Deodato’s art. Very dynamic, even then. And then he passed the torch to John Byrne (1995-98) - and I’m not going to lie to you, I enjoyed that run very much. At least the first half. The second half had a surprisingly strong Roy Thomas vibe. Lots of continuity work that not a lot of people ever wanted to deal with. But the first half was a dedicated fight book, where Byrne tried to prove a point: that Wonder Woman is really damn strong and should maybe have a big fistfight once in a while.
Even if his run tapered off in quality—and it most definitely did—I was still on board for at least a tiny bit afterwards. They had Adam Hughes doing the covers, definitely a reason to buy even if it wasn’t a strong enough inducement to stick around. There was a bit of a rudderless season following Byrne. So I bailed, even though if I’d stuck around for just a little bit longer I would probably have really dug Phil Jimenez’s rather well-regarded run (2001-03). I’ve since read bits and pieces.
I dipped back in once more as a reader before bowing out for a while. The last time I got really excited about Wonder Woman was 2003, when they brought in the all-star team of Walt Simonson writing for Jerry Ordway, with inks by P. Craig Russell. And more covers by Hughes. Now, can you guess what they brought that absolutely stunning creative team to do for six issues, beginning with #189? Why, they cut Diana’s hair short for half a year. Of course I was going to show up for that. I’m only human.
Now, I’ve since read more Wonder Woman, both before and after that point. Even enjoyed it in places - I liked much of what Greg Rucka did, that I saw. Enjoyed the Gail Simone run, as I’ve generally enjoyed everything Simone has written, even if I don’t really remember a lot of it. Could probably stand a reread. Wonder Woman was also one of a handful of titles to really benefit from the New 52 initiative, with the ascension of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang for three years, late 2011 to late 2014. That was an excellent creative team, and an excellent run of comics, barring one glaring problem which I’ll mention by the by.
Point being: I’m not particularly invested in any of the details regarding the character’s mythology, for better or for worse. As I said, it's an insular title; if you’re not really into the character some of the details can see very opaque from a distance. Thankfully, I don’t think Wonder Woman Historia carries itself with the delusion of finality. The very opening words of the book remind us that there’s no one answer to be had, although that itself is an answer to the question: the mythology, being mythology, will always change.
The full and complete title is actually Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons. Wonder Woman’s name is on the cover but she’s not in the book, barring a tiny cameo on the last few pages. It’s also true, however, that everything in the book is nonetheless catalyzed by her, in a very circuitous fashion. Like I say, I know some things change from telling to telling, and I know the circumstances of Diana’s birth are among the most fraught origin sequences in comic books. People keep fiddling with it, but its such a primal image: a childless woman is given a baby from a lifeless lump of clay. The virgin birth part is as crucial to Wonder Woman as Bruce Wayne’s parents dying is to Batman. Sure, you could tweak it, but ultimately it’s a load-bearing pillar. There’s no way what you get in return is going to be worth the price of that one simple logline. Apologies to Messrs. Azzarello and Chiang, who made Diana the daughter of Zeus; theirs was otherwise a very good run, but you had to know people weren’t going to take to the change.
Historia is a rarity, being a series designed from the get-go to be drawn by a different artist each issue. Kelly Sue DeConnick is at the helm, teeing up scripts for Phil Jimenez, Gene Ha and Nicola Scott. Such a fascinating device; you don’t see it as often as you’d think. The most prominent success in the format that springs to mind is the first Books of Magic series. By 1990, Neil Gaiman was already growing accustomed to meeting the demands of shifting artists, but I’ve always thought this was a bit of breakthrough in that regard. It’s not just that the series accommodates the differing aesthetics of John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson, but that it is to a large degree built around those differences.
You can say something similar about DeConnick with the Historia. Each part of the story reflects a different era of history. The first book, by Jimenez, takes place almost entirely in the realm of the mythic. It is concerned with the comings and goings of the gods. The second book, by Ha, is the founding of the Amazon tribe, under the light of the moon and behind the backs of the male gods of Olympus. The third book, by Scott, is the inevitable war that results when those same gods eventually learn of the creation of the tribes of Amazon demigods, and the subsequent advent of the Amazon nation under their auspices.
So there’s no confusion in the matter, this is among the best work of their respective careers. Why wouldn’t it be? They all clearly took their time to get it right. The three issues were released many months apart—January 2022, June 2022, February 2023—in no seeming hurry for anything other than to ensure it looks dynamite. Even if Wonder Woman isn’t your cup of ouzo, the three artists here have come together to accomplish something, if you’ll excuse the hoary cliché, greater than the sum of its parts. A real showstopper for all concerned.
Jimenez’s introductory issue is the most riotous and colorful. Accordingly, there are three credited colorists: Hi-Fi, Arif Prianto and Romulo Fajarado, Jr. The color seems so integral to the finished product, I’d be interested to see what the files looked like prior.
As I said, it’s about the gods, and it gives us an image of these very familiar deities unlike anything we’ve seen in comics to date. For decades, the Greek pantheon were represented across comics such that most people would recognize a century’s worth of depiction in film and television. You can practically hear the crisp BBC Received Pronunciation transmitting through the paper in the Pérez run, for instance. Something of the frightful nature of the divine is unquestionably lost when all the gods look like handsome British character actors in togas. One of the most interesting aspects of Chiang’s time on the book was his endlessly fascinating redesigns of that pantheon. Just because they’re some of our very oldest literary characters doesn’t mean they don’t need some spit and polish now and again.
Much of the juice in this first volume comes from Jimenez’s enthusiastic adoption of digital production, utilized here for the purpose of creating an overwhelming visual experience that sometimes borders on assaultive. There’s simply too much happening on these pages - too many drawings, too many effects, too many designs, too many ideas. And that surplus of data makes perfect sense. We are but mere mortals, after all. Why should we expect any glimpse into the realm of the divine to make sense? Jimenez sets the tone for the series with all this overflowing detail - detail and filigree and texture beyond imagination, a layering of richness that might be annoying in almost any other context than that of a story intended to create a contrast between the realms of god and man.
It’s the business of the next two chapters to tone down the brilliant register, pare down the universe to closer fit our understanding. Ha’s issue takes place mostly at night and mostly on Earth. The shimmering hyperreality of the first chapter gives way to the soft light of the moon, or the flickering illumination of a campfire. Wesley Wong is the credited colorist here, as subtle and shadowy as the first book was brash and bright. Ha used to be a master of the most precise hatchwork, but that’s not the play anymore. Hatching in comics and illustration exists to circumvent the limitations of mechanical reproduction. It’s very difficult to print the fat end of the pencil, after all. But now it’s easier still to reproduce smudges and shadows with far greater fidelity, so some of the meticulous hatching native to artists such as Ha—and Jimenez, for that matter—gets left by the wayside. So it goes.
The tribe of demigoddesses created at the conclusion of the previous chapter live at night, well accustomed to hiding themselves, but eventually they attract a following, and soon that following becomes difficult to hide. This leads, with sure and certain inevitability, to the eventual reveal. This comes in the form of a murder in the temple of Apollo.
Now that - that’s a neat piece of plotting right there. Because here, I think, is where Historia really shines, in attempting something that should by all rights be rather tricky: telling a new story with some of the oldest characters in the world. Wonder Woman has been around for over 80 years, but she’s not really here. Zeus and Hera and all the rest of them have been around for significantly longer. It’s hard to tell new stories with characters like that. What’s more, the Greek gods lack the human hook of the Norse pantheon, the pathos and vulnerability of being part of a doomed cycle of universal conflagration. The Greek gods are renowned for being violent bullies, capricious, dangerous, gleefully one-dimensional and often without any redeeming qualities, because their very nature is antithetical to the idea of redeeming qualities. They exist almost as functions of domain.
It’s easy, in other words, to write a story in which Zeus and Hera are pieces of plot furniture. Much harder to bring these hoary old geezers to life again. But that murder at the end of the second chapter is a real showstopper. We all know enough about these myths to understand that you’re not supposed to kill anyone in the temple of a patron god. Killing someone in the temple of Apollo, while in the act of praying to Apollo - well! You’re flinching along with me because we know how that’s going to play out. We feel it in our bones.
And what a wonderful sensation, to be invested in the wrath of Apollo in the year 2023! We don’t build the temples anymore, perhaps, but that we still make room in our fantasies indicates the gods were wise to exchange the reality of worship for an eternity of idiom. Lasts longer.
After the unreality of the first volume and the oft-muted twilight of the second, Nicola Scott gives us a climax in the full light of day. Annette Kwok’s colors are vivid and rich, lively and natural in a way that seems to exist in a balance between the first two, very different issues. The gods themselves even make note of the artistic change, as creatures of the aether pulled gradually but implacably into the realm of flesh and blood by the restless affairs of man. The artistic evolution of these three chapters makes literal the descent from myth down through legend and finally history. That process of historical descent was familiar to the Greeks themselves - from ages of gold to silver and bronze, and finally the age of man.
With the secret of the Amazons exposed, there exists a state of implacable war between them and the rest of the universe. The first ambassador from the gods is Heracles. Were the Amazons content to fight him one-on-one in personal combat, it’s likely that he could have wiped the floor with any individual warrior. What with him being Heracles and all. But the Amazons know better than to offer him a fair fight. They overwhelm him with numbers and send the dismembered pieces of his body back to his father. Which, as you can imagine, makes a bad situation much worse.
The double-page spread featuring the Amazons’ murder of Heracles is one of the most breathtaking pieces of art in the entire project - ambitious, ornate and brutal. Scott has always struck me as something of an underrated figure, despite her undeniable talent. Each of the original issues of the book came with a few pages of process material in the back - useful and interesting, from Jimenez’s long and detailed notes regarding every visual aspect of the original Amazons, to Ha’s insights about how to read a script and build a book’s worth of motif. But it’s Scott’s section I found most revealing. She works on paper with pencils and ink, and when she’s done with the detail work she goes back over the whole thing with gorgeous subtle ink washes.
It may seem improbable that such a thing could be - an artist might just sit down and draw something so unspeakably beautiful as all that. Surely not! I have in the past accused modern artists of cowardice for neglecting the ink wash, and must hereby exonerate Scott from any such critique. Nicola Scott doesn’t take any shortcuts. She’s the closest we’ve got to Russ Heath. We should probably put her in a box somewhere so she doesn’t get hurt.
And so the war becomes a siege. Each day Olympus sends war, each day the Amazons repulse the invaders. But that can only continue so long, given their finite numbers. It’s a war to the death or worse, they all know, and that allows them to fight with a strength that belies their power. And here is where the story would have ended quite tragically, and inevitably, were it not for the intervention of Hera.
More than any other character here I found myself impressed by DeConnick’s portrait of Hera. Although initially she appears aloof and disapproving it becomes clear by the end of the story that Hera has contributed as much or more to the founding of the Amazons as any of her sister deities. When the goddesses first come together, in conspiracy to create life away from the prying eyes of Zeus and Olympus, she declines: she won’t interfere, but she can’t be involved. She also tells us that she sees the future alongside the past and present, and that she understands what will happen as well as what has. In the fullness of time, it is revealed that her benign neglect was the greatest gift she could give the Amazons, as her distance from the conspiracy allows her the space to act freely in the most crucial instant, with survival hanging in the balance. She saw it all from the beginning.
The Amazons do survive their war, even if not on the most flattering terms. The gods come to realize that allowing the Amazons to die in one last heroic stand would probably cause them more grief in the long run than merely keeping them around as a captive people. So they are exiled to live forever on a picturesque island in the Mediterranean. There are worse prisons.
Over the course of the story we follow the evolution of Hyppolita from a young midwife to a hardened leader, someone whose own desire to be held accountable pushes her forward to defend her people. At the end of the series, even after she has stepped forward and saved her people, she has also lost the respect of those same subjects. They can never forgive, not despite but because they understand the nature of the impossible compromises she has made to ensure survival. The founding of nations isn’t a pretty business, and not a place for the niceties of honor, or love. That would be a down note on which to end a story, but for the last note of hope plucked by the “birth” of our Diana. Full circle, and so the story ends.
Are there other volumes of Historia to be told? The colon in the title does rather present the tantalizing possibility.
Now, I find it interesting to point out, Historia wasn’t released in a vacuum. It was serialized concurrently with another rather startling artistic success, Catwoman: Lonely City, written and drawn by the aforementioned Cliff Chiang. Both of these titles shipped for DC’s Black Label, alongside another slightly less heralded but also commendable achievement, Rogues, by Joshua Williamson and Italian artist Leomacs: a droll look at the last days of the Flash’s worst enemies that flew under the radar but also deserves your attention. Hell, around the same time they even got Ram V and Christian Ward to do a gorgeous Aquaman book, Andromeda.
One good story is down to talented creators. But a flock of good stories? Multiple good stories are the product of good editors. DC’s Black Label is on a bit of a roll. The credited editors for Historia are Chris Conroy, Andy Khouri (who is no longer with the publisher) and Andrea Shea. They clearly did something right, in terms of attracting and respecting talent, in an era when it is so very easy to do nothing at all. Marvel could take notes. Knowing them, they’ll probably just poach Conroy to run the X-Men.
Now, of course, it goes without saying we’re suffering a bit of a crisis of confidence in our independent publishers right now. Heading into a bear market, industry-wise. If DC’s Black Label could offer anything resembling Vertigo’s old participation contract, that kind of breakthrough coup might be worth a couple points of market share all by itself - just like in the '90s, another era defined by a crisis of confidence in independent publishers, of which DC took full advantage. As unlikely as it seems on the face of it that they could ever do anything like that again, we must remember that the Micronauts are back at Marvel and a former President has been indicted in federal court.
Literally anything is possible in this brave new world of the future. Including, strange as it might seem, good comic books.