It’s Wonder Woman time. All over the Internet and real life right now, you’re liable to find flashes of raven hair, gold bracers, and the ubiquitous WW logo. It’s oddly affecting to think that it took 75 quiet years of Wonder Woman comics for us to reach this media-saturated, emotionally charged, epic moment. Of course, Wonder Woman already meant many different things to many different people. Some cannot think of Diana without conjuring feathery-haired visions of Linda Carter resplendent in her star-spangled armor. Younger folks hear Keri Russell’s voice when they thumb the pages of a Wonder Woman book. Still others are waiting for the Wonder Woman who can reflect their image back to them, stronger and more powerful than before. I hope they don’t have long to wait.
As for me, I was raised on DC Comics. The Amazon princess already meant so many things before I sat down to watch Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Now, I have trouble separating the character I knew from Gal Gadot’s warm, easy smile and fearsome determination. There is so much to love in the film. It took so many elements of Diana’s long-lived character and molded them together, buffed them to a fine polish. If there is something you loved about the film, odds are great it can be found in the comics. If there’s something you loved about the moment that Wonder Woman is having right now, you can find it reflected in the comics, too. It’s going to be a while before we get another solo Wonder Woman movie, so now’s a good time to read up.
If You Love the Gender Politics: Wonder Woman, The Golden Age Omnibus by William Moulton Marston, et al.
Wonder Woman was created by a man. There’s no getting around that. For the most part, she’s been written by men, too. Clearly there should be more female representation in comics; that’s not up for debate. But simply because a man tells a tale doesn’t mean it can’t be feminist, and because a man creates a thing for women doesn’t mean it can’t be useful. Like Fury Road and breast pumps: useful, empowering stuff made by men with the help of women. Same basic idea with Wonder Woman: useful, empowering character made by a man with the help of his wife and their girlfriend.
That man is William Moulton Marston. A psychologist-turned-comic-writer, Marston was an interesting guy with some freaky ideas for his time (not least of all the decades-long, committed poly relationship). He created Wonder Woman, as he put it, to serve as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Marston believed women should rule the world because they knew how to keep America running smoothly without starting up any pesky World Wars. Add to that mix some low-key same-sex flirtation, a strong aversion to marriage, and a penchant for bondage that would make Christian Grey blush, and you basically have all the ingredients for Marston’s Golden Age Wonder Woman comics. They’re fascinating to read, because the plot and dialogue inspire reactions that bounce back and forth between “right on, that’s so me right now” and “oh man, I hope no one on the train can read this page over my shoulder.” The love story between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor is so hopelessly one-sided in her favor that it’s funny. And not because you wish Steve any heartache, but because the world of Golden Age Wonder Woman is so gender-bent that it’s hard not to have a knee-jerk laugh response to panels like this:
If You Love Diana the Warrior: Wonder Woman Vol. 1-6 (The New 52) by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang
This book has already been broken down eloquently here on BMD, so I won’t retread old ground. If you want to see Wonder Woman kick ass with her sword and shield at the ready, this is a good place to start. Cliff Chiang’s art is remarkably beautiful, especially Wonder Woman herself. Instead of being a generic beauty, Diana boasts the kind of impossibly wavy hair and strong, aquiline nose that look lifted straight off a Greek vase. Aesthetically, this is my favorite Wonder Woman. She looks fit, well-muscled, and physically imposing in nearly every environment. Her power and fighting spirit come through in Chiang’s bold action sequences, drawn with an eye for conveying force and momentum unfettered by too much background clutter. This book has it all in terms of action: hand-to-hand combat, Amazon training sequences, centaur fight scenes, and epic giant monster battles.
Azzarello’s writing leaves something to be desired, though. His boldest idea is the reinvention of Paradise Island as a utopia built on dark secrets, and it backs him into an unfortunate corner. Azzarello invents a striking alternate history Themyscira, one where Amazons use sailors as unwitting sperm donors before murdering them once they’ve fulfilled their purpose—praying mantis style. The resulting male children are also murdered to preserve the purity of the Amazons’ female population. For certain, to write female characters effectively, those characters must be complex and capable of good as well as evil. But considering that Azzarello had the unique opportunity to explore an entire society run by women for women, his decision to focus on how that society treats men as his most focused critique seems less imaginative the longer you think about it.
If You Love the Amazons: The Circle (Wonder Woman Vol. 3, issues #14-17) by Gail Simone
Gail Simone is Wonder Woman’s longest-running female writer, and she knows her Amazons. Her version of Diana holds the Amazon ideals even more closely than others. Diana’s combat prowess is formidable, she’s whip-smart, tactically gifted, and fully aware of the fact that her body is a deadly weapon. With that in mind, Diana champions peace during every conflict, with the hopes that she will not have to use her considerable power to do harm. “We have a saying, my people,” Wonder Woman repeats, “Don't kill if you can wound, don't wound if you can subdue, don't subdue if you can pacify, and don't raise your hand at all until you've first extended it.” Simone’s Wonder Woman is a compelling character, but her best story is mostly about the Amazons themselves.
The Circle succeeds at revealing the flaws in Themyscirian society where Azzarello fails, though Simone’s story clearly benefits from some streamlining, since takes place after most of the Amazon population has been wiped out by an all-out war with the United States (long story). This is a story about women and for women, and Simone pulls no punches in her deep-dive examination of the complex and conflicting feelings that drive us. Any plot details become instantly spoilery, and this one is not to be missed. It is simply enough to say that Simone’s interest in Wonder Woman’s origins is unlike other writers’. Instead of getting too hung up on how Diana came to be, Simone examines what it means to live in a community of women without any children, and takes an unflinching look at the powerful emotions that surface in the Amazon community when Queen Hippolyta becomes a mother.
If You Love Diana’s Empathy: Wonder Woman Vol. 1-4 (Rebirth)
Rebirth marks Greg Rucka’s second run writing for Wonder Woman, and it leans hard into everything about Diana’s values, personality, and culture that set her apart from the rest of the D.C. Universe. Rucka doesn’t shy away from the hokier elements of the Wonder Woman comics, opting instead to give them the gravitas they deserve. Diana’s longtime frenemy Cheetah—whose appearance is a hard pill to swallow, somewhere on the spectrum of sexy Thundercat—is treated with ample respect as a genuinely moving character tormented by her animal form and conflicted relationship with Wonder Woman. Diana’s empathy for her sometimes-rival is gutting, completely unadulterated by pandering winks to the audience. Rucka doubles down, expecting you to care about the feelings of a cheetah-person with furry breasts, because Diana does.
Wonder Woman’s emotions serve as a revealing barometer in these books. Every time you want to snark, snicker, or gloat that someone got what they deserved, Diana’s buoyant empathy is there as a reminder that sincerity is heroic. Her emotional openness is a kind of bravery all its own. One scene finds Diana alone with Steve Trevor, who questions her, with some trepidation, about her relationship with Superman. Loyal, sensitive Steve is hoping she’ll say Superman was a mistake, that she loves him and only him. As the setting sun tints the clouds pink and rosies Diana’s cheeks, you find that you want her to say it, too. But that would be dishonest. “I believe in love, Steve,” she tells him, with kindness. “I believe we should be allowed to love one another, and to do so without restraint. I believe that love is not limited, but limitless.” Diana loved Superman, and she can love Steve too (as he learns in just a moment). But what she can’t do is allow someone else to restrain her feelings, because her feelings are the truest reflection of who she is. That’s pretty wonderful.
If You Hate the Alamo’s Women-Only Screenings: Superman, Red Son by Mark Millar
Red Son is a Superman book, so this one’s for you. But it’s also a story that’s consistently recommended to me when I asking folks about their favorite Wonder Woman titles, which is worth noting considering how things shake out for Diana. Red Son takes place in a reimagined universe where Superman, instead of landing in a spaceship on a farm in Kansas, landed in a spaceship on a farm in the U.S.S.R. As an adult, he becomes a living Soviet superweapon, and some very high-stakes Cold War hijinks ensue. Wonder Woman is a nearly unrecognizable shell of herself as the lovestruck, overlooked Amazon ambassador who would do anything for the object of her affections. For Superman, she joins the Soviets, dances at galas, and entertains media rumors of their nonexistent romance when it suits him. Superman, for his part, considers the combat-ready Diana “more like one of the boys,” than a potential partner, since in his eyes she’s been ruined for love or lust by “her antiseptic island.” Of course, when he inevitably asks it of her, Wonder Woman sacrifices her greatest weapon, her sanity, and her identity to serve Kal-el’s story. The Princess of Thymescira, Goddess of Truth (and sometimes War), Diana Prince the Wonder Woman is given so little consideration that even her ultimate fate in this book doesn’t fall into major spoiler territory.
Worst of all is the fact that Red Son is a fantastic and very worthy read. It’s a brilliant Superman story, and the end really does deliver. But Millar’s treatment of Wonder Woman (and Lois Lane, for that matter) is dismissive and condescending, bordering on the punitive. Though I suppose it’s unsurprising, considering that Millar himself admitted that he pitched DC a story called “The Rape of Wonder Woman,” hoping to piggyback off the success of 1992’s infamous “The Death of Superman” storyline. Damn. Who hurt you, Mark Millar?
If You Hate Taking My Word for It: Wonder Woman, A Celebration of 75 Years by William Moulton Marston, George Perez, Brian Azzarello, Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, et al.
Just released in time for the movie, this is a pretty comprehensive compilation of Wonder Woman stories from her best-known writers and artists. This omnibus represents so many different takes on the character that it would be hard to read the whole thing without genuinely liking at least one of them. My Wonder Woman may not be your Wonder Woman, of course, but that’s exactly the point. If Wonder Woman shows us anything, it’s that you need to live your own truth, no matter who tells you otherwise.