Olympus Cannot Hold: Cliff Chiang and Brian Azzarello’s WONDER WOMAN

It’s flawed and frustrating, but its gorgeous artwork, strong central theme and magnificently written title heroine make it worthy.

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In 2011, DC comics chose to wipe its history clean and start anew. The result was The New 52, a hugely ambitious but largely unsuccessful project. Its aim was to open the DC universe to new readers and offer longtime fans fresh, exciting takes on the characters and stories they loved. In practice, the line was a flailing mess. Experiments in narrative style outside the superheroic form - war stories, westerns, and high fantasies - drew varied reviews and often unsustainable sales. Some attempts to update characters were embraced. Midnighter, drawn by a rotating team of artists and written by Steve Orlando, which launched late in the project’s life, both honored what had come before for the gay, cheerfully brutal hero and expanded his motivations and identity to fist-pumping and moving results. Other updates were soundly rejected. Red Hood and The Outlaws, drawn by Kenneth Rochafort and written by Scott Lobdell squished its three leads, including the beloved Teen Titans heroine Starfire, into grotesque “edgy,” “adult” caricatures. 

Creators and their books suffered from heavy-handed editorial interference, such as the infamous occasion when Batgirl writer Gail Simone was abruptly fired from the book for no apparent reason. After a tremendous outcry by the fan community, she was just as abruptly rehired. The New 52 was ultimately such a mess that Rebirth, DC’s 2016 relaunch, was in part designed as a massive mea culpa for its predecessor’s failings. Still, the sorry fate of the larger project should not condemn books that flourished. Books where the creative team embraced the idea of building a new history and telling great stories with it. Books that had both a supportive editorial team and time to tell their stories. Books that were, warts and all, distinct. Books like Cliff Chiang and Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman.

From November 2011 to November 2014, Chiang and Azzarello told the grand tale of a divine and severely dysfunctional family’s deeply personal and utterly calamitous war. Zeus, king of the gods, had vanished. His high throne of Mount Olympus was vacant. Hades and Poseidon, his brothers, saw a chance to take a realm they had long desired. His bastard son Apollo saw an opportunity to seize Heaven and remake it into something better suited to the modern world. His bitter, vengeful wife Hera saw a chance to exact retribution upon those who her husband had betrayed her for. The situation was, to put it simply, fraught. And that was before the rest of Zeus’ children got involved. Chief among them? A mysterious baby boy, eventually named Zeke, born to a young woman named Zola. Both immediately became the target of the pantheon. The god Hermes sent the then heavily pregnant Zola to someone who would protect her and her child. That champion? Diana of Themyscria, Princess of the Amazons, the superheroine called Wonder Woman. 

The only problem? Wonder Woman would turn out to be Zeke’s half-sister. She had been raised to believe that her mother, Queen Hippolyta, had shaped a child from clay, prayed to the Gods for a daughter and seen her prayers answered. But in truth? Hippolyta and Zeus had developed a secret love for each other throughout the years, culminating in Diana’s conception. Hippolyta lied to her daughter and her people for years to protect them all from Hera’s wrath. When the goddess Strife revealed Wonder Woman’s true heritage to her, her involvement in Zola’s crisis immediately became more personal and vastly more complicated. And all the while, Hera and Zeus’ secret, nameless, monstrously cruel first-born son was digging his way out of his prison in the center of the Earth, determined to sate his endless hatred and his subconscious need to be loved. By the time the run wrapped, Wonder Woman had grappled with the failings of Amazonian society, cut through the machinations of her extended family and repeatedly, successfully pushed herself and the people who surrounded her to keep growing and be better than they had been.

The most immediate and unambiguously exciting reason to check out this run is Cliff Chiang’s tremendous skill as an artist. Consider the sheets below, showcasing his design for a statue of Wonder Woman in the armor she commissioned from Hephaestus for when things get heavy:

Chiang’s faces are clean, clear and expressive. There’s enough cartoon in them for big grand moments of expression, and enough detail work that each of his characters comes across as a distinct, individual person. His Apollo and Artemis, a pair of Zeus’ children born to the same mother, share specific facial features – the shape of their eyes and lips, the way their hair meets their foreheads -- that mark them as more closely to each other than their many half-siblings. He has an extremely strong handle on costume design too. His rendition of Jim Lee’s overdesigned New 52 Wonder Woman costume is bold, clean and does neat things with the texture of the outfit’s various materials. The silver of her tiara and WW symbol particularly pops, so much that I’m sad it’s been discarded in favor of the outfit’s classic gold for Rebirth. And the armor in the sketches above? It’s simply one of the best modern superhero design’s I’ve ever seen; complex without being overcrowded, based in Wonder Woman’s history while being distinct and wonderfully balanced in its use of color. 

Chiang’s civilian costumes for the pantheon are cleverly tied to each god’s character. Apollo favors shiny suits in deep colors. Strfe wears a dramatically and deliberately slashed dress. Hermes is fond of sunglasses and military ponchos to hide his clawed feet. And I’m particularly fond of Ares/War’s design. He’s depressed by the ugly state of modern war, something of an alcoholic and wrestling with his gradually dawning realization that his beloved pupil Diana’s understanding of war and battle is superior to his own. He wears a series of ratty, rumpled suits that are always blood-stained. The design works as both a reflection of Ares’ current character and a sharp contrast to his carefully deployed classic look as a musclebound warrior with a fearsome helm and a mighty fur cape.

Chiang’s action, like his face work, is clean, clear and bold. He highlights big moments when they need the spotlight. And he emphasizes movement and force over the course of Wonder Woman’s many, varied fights. Check out this moment from one of Wonder Woman’s early battles with the First Born:

Chiang drew most of the 35 issues Azzarello wrote, and he knocks it out of the park every time. I’d go so far as to say that it’s some of the best artwork done in a mainstream cape book this decade. If you’re interested in what he’s been doing recently, check out Paper Girls, his coming-of-age/science fiction story with author Brian K. Vaughn.

Brian Azzarello’s writing is a thornier recommendation for me than Chiang’s art. He writes Wonder Woman herself magnificently, and most of her divine family are strongly penned too. He has a strong, clear thesis for his story, and he explores it throughout the entirety of the run. The old ways and traditions of Mount Olympus and the Amazons are no longer sustainable either practically or morally, and radical change is necessary. Wonder Woman, Azzarello’s story persuasively argues, is the one who will bring that change about.

Diana has seen the best and the worst of her world, and chosen to confront the bad head-on while preserving and protecting the good. She questions herself and has doubts, but does so because she will never stop looking to be better, not so that she can wallow in malaise. She loves a good fight, and understands that mercy and compassion are as necessary to win a war as martial prowess and an indomitable will. She neither buries nor surrenders herself to anger, and when she makes a mistake or misjudges a situation, she has the strength to accept that she has been in the wrong. Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman is, in other words, a magnificent superhero.

The dysfunction of Wonder Woman’s Olympian family stands in sharp contrast to her, from both a character standpoint and a narrative one. Many of the gods are solipsistic in the extreme, and utterly convinced of their righteousness, even as they commit horrific deeds. Barring the First Born, none of them are outright evil, even though several are truly terrible people. They are lost in themselves, and many prove unable to change their natures without a radical event. It takes being stripped of her immortality and forced to talk to Zola for her to even consider that she had habitually put more blame on the women Zeus cheated on her with and the children produced by those affairs than on Zeus himself. The family’s exceptionally uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics and inability to confront their failings in a healthy manor makes for some fine drama and a strong group of foils and nemeses for Wonder Woman. The monstrous First Born is the best example of this, a cruel, petty murderer given to grandiose speeches and vicious acts of violence, all in a vain attempt to outrun his loneliness and valid anger at Zeus for trying to kill him.

Where Azzarello stumbles is his work with Wonder Woman’s supporting characters and his attempt to make the Amazons morally grey. Zola is a critical character to the run, but she isn’t that much of a character. Most of her development happens off-screen, and her close relationship with Diana is told far more than it is shown. Her story does take an interesting turn in the back third of the run, but it isn’t set up well, and it leads directly into the book’s abrupt and somewhat underwhelming denouement. The idea of Zola is interesting – a young working class woman pulled into godly intrigue to protect herself and her child, and who grows into someone who offers both an exemplar of Wonder Woman’s ideology and the heroine’s beloved friend, but the execution of that idea is lacking. It’s disappointing, as are the thinly sketched stories of Wonder Woman’s other 20th-century-born half-siblings and Jack Kirby-created New God Orion.

In isolation, the idea of the Amazons having done shameful things in the past and refusing to let their traditions and way of life grow and change to avoid confronting that shame is an interesting one. So too is the idea that some in the women’s utopia Themyscria would have it remain a utopia by force rather than choice. But in practice, Wonder Woman learns that her mother lied to her about her heritage, and then Hera turns Hippolyta into clay and the Amazons into snakes for most the run. Not long after the fall of Themyscria, Wonder Woman learns that every generation, some of the Amazons seduce sailors to conceive children and then murder them. Their daughters become Amazons. Their sons were drowned until Hephaestus intervened and offered to trade weapons and armor in exchange for taking the boys as apprentices and raising them away from Themyscria. Wonder Woman’s shocked and disturbed by this dark truth, but then it doesn’t really come up again until the last act, wherein she begins reintegrating the Amazons and Hephaestus’ apprentices with intense but brief resistance.

It is, again, an interesting idea, but Azzarello drops the ball on it by sidelining it for so much of the run and then only briefly addressing it. If he wanted to critically engage with Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston’s conception of Themyscria as a paradise because it was run by women, who Marston considered men’s moral superiors, and with the Amazons’ long history as part of feminist discourse, he would have to make that exploration the centerpiece of the run. As glorified backstory, it’s sour and frustrating. It’s also indicative of one of the New 52’s biggest problems as a whole; it didn’t have a clear sense of its audience and thus chose to cater to one small segment of it at the expense of the others.

With its focus on the Greek Gods, some of whom have massive sadistic streaks and unsettling powers, the Chiang/Azzarello Wonder Woman’s content is a very hard PG-13/moderate R. On its own, that is not a bad thing. The violence is necessary to the story being told, and the moments that are meant to be horrific are scary and well-executed. But it’s not a book I’d feel comfortable giving to kids, and when one of the biggest superheroines in the world’s main comic book is more for grown-ups than kids, that’s an issue. Comics are for everyone, and while the pre-Chiang/Azzarello Wonder Woman stories I’ve explored (either in her own books, in the Morrison-penned JLA and within the DC Animated Universe) are great, they should not be the end-all-be-all for younger readers who want to get into Wonder Woman. It was a major problem with the New 52, and it’s an ongoing problem with contemporary cape comics in general. There’s nothing wrong with the Chiang/Azzarello run being primarily for grown-ups. But there is something wrong with it and books like it being the only option for readers. These are ideas. They are mutable. There is room for more than one take.

And this is a comparatively minor gripe, but while the run has strong dialogue and conversations, they are mixed in with a constant drip of painfully bad wordplay.

Yet.

Cliff Chiang’s artwork is superb. His visual interpretation of Wonder Woman is an all-timer. Brian Azzarello did slip up engaging with Wonder Woman’s textual past, but he absolutely understands why and how she’s a hero, and the story he tells about her heroism and how it pushes back against her family’s status quo is an excellent, distinct piece of storytelling that successfully blends the languages of superhero comics and mythology. Some of the wordplay is so awful that it circles back to being clever. It’s imperfect. But I want to close this out with an excerpt from a conversation between Wonder Woman and Orion:

“Perfection… Sometimes it’s our own worst enemy. I tried to be perfect once.”

“And?”

“Decided to just try to be better. Found a good way to start that… is by accepting who you are.”

I have my issues with Chiang and Azzarello’s time on Wonder Woman. But I also think really, really highly of it.

This article featured artwork by Cliff Chiang.

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