Comics journey #4: DC Bombshells, Year One

My god I am dying of jealousy this week at everything coming out of SDCC. I haven’t wanted to go so badly in years! How psyched are you all for Justice League and the (inevitable, but still) Wonder Woman sequel?!

Meanwhile, having sailed through most of the Wonder Woman books we had in the house, I was reaching the point of having to go buy my own stuff. This was anxiety-inducing because how do you pick? What’s a New 52? What if I buy something and it’s terrible? I even watched Batman vs Superman against my better judgement to get my fix.

Thankfully a friend of mine came to the rescue and suggested Bombshells. “It’s everything you would love! It’s her saving the world in WW2 but with more awesome female characters!”

It was also its own self-contained story with no need to understand the wider continuity. And my friends could lend me the first two volumes. Sold!

I sort of peripherally knew about this series because we have a giant Bombshells poster on our wall. Bombshells began as pin-up style art that people liked so much it got turned into a line of collectible figures and then its own series in 2015, written by Marguerite Bennett. It imagines Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Supergirl, Catwoman and a whole bunch of other characters I’d never met (Batwoman, Stargirl, Huntress, Mera/Aquawoman, Big Barda, Zatanna, Dr Light, about a million Bat-kids) into a stylised WW2 setting, because who doesn’t like seeing sexy ladies in pin-up outfits?

Well…I don’t. Overly objectified female characters were one of the reasons I never got into comics before now, so I went into this with mixed feelings. It helped that this series is immediately queer as all hell, kicking off with Batwoman Kate Kane and her girlfriend and never dropping that ball. I found myself very glad that Bennett, who’s openly bisexual, was the one to do this: written from a male or perhaps even a straight female perspective, it would have been so easy to end up with something insulting. Instead we have a comic that may be set in 1940 but whose politics are unmistakably current.

To balance out the idealised aesthetic, Bennett isn’t shy about the ugly realities of war and prejudice. The comic consciously avoids using the period setting as an excuse to whitewash the cast. Romani and LGBT, as well as Jewish, characters express the fear they live in, while the Batgirls storyline deals with racism and xenophobia amongst the “good guys” back home.

batgirls

If there was a Bechdel test for plots, this would pass with flying colours. The character arcs of most of the Bombshells are drawn around searching for self-determination in the face of a world war, not just a gender one.  The characters stand on their own merits (no Batman, Superman or Aquaman in this ‘verse) and the conflict is much bigger than a fight against male entitlement. Our heroines’ biggest recurring struggle in this vein is with the pressure to be nothing more than pretty images of hope and/or propaganda.

symbol

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With so much to cover, these first two volumes do feel a little thinly spread in terms of plot and character development. But it’s a credit to the artists that the Batgirls storyline was the only time I encountered the face-blindness I usually struggle with when confronted with Loads And Loads Of Characters (e.g. I thought Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman were the same person for most of The Prestige. This did not help me understand The Prestige).

batkids
One of you is probably also Christian Bale, I don’t even know anymore

Okay, so, Wonder Woman. This Diana is wide-eyed and young, fresh off the boat (or I guess, dolphin chariot) from Themyscira. She gets off to a promising start, rebelling against Hippolyta with plenty of bravado, but then proceeds to spend most of her time cooing at a hunky but traumatised Steve Trevor. I have to thank Captain Awkward here for introducing me to this quote from poet Marilyn Hacker, which sums it up: “Women love a sick child or a healthy animal; a man who is both itches them like an incubus“.

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I call this compilation “GET A ROOM”

It may be that I just find Diana/Steve inherently boring, but that wasn’t the only issue I had. I mean, Wonder Woman sure does fight some Nazis, but she seems to sail unruffled through every challenge and compared to her counterparts, the character lacks depth. Hopefully she gets some more development in the subsequent two volumes, but so far the movie honestly does a better job of what this comic is going for.

Happily, I found myself some new favourites instead. I looked forward most to Mera and Harley’s stories, whose underlying darkness is accented with humour. Mera is a rebellious Atlantean princess on the run; she likes to show off, which is endearing next to Wonder Woman and Supergirl’s noble selflessness, and she loves her friends wholeheartedly.

mera

Harley’s unfettered enthusiasm is just so much fun and I like her more every time she appears. She is a bouncy little psycho bean and she must be protected.

harley

Selina Kyle/Catwoman was also a standout. She’s so well-written I can hear her dialogue in an languid drawl in my head.

catwoman

Marguerite Sauvage did a lot of the art for this series but I also liked Mirka Andolfo’s slightly Disneyfied look, which gelled really well with the setting. Also, Supergirl and Stargirl’s Soviet Russian backstory features some gorgeous folk art by Sandy Jarrell.

folk art

In terms of friendliness to new Wonder Woman fans, I’d recommend getting a sense of the character from other writers first and reading Bombshells to expand your reading list with some lesser-known DC heroines. A few characters get an origin do-over, but some of them are pretty far from their canon versions and that could get confusing. On the other hand, it’s not part of the normal continuity, so you won’t miss anything. And you’ll be right on time to pick up the new series, Bombshells United, which is out this August!

Also due out next month is Gotham City Garageanother re-imagining based on a collectibles line featuring Big Barda, Steel, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Silver Banshee, Hawkgirl and Supergirl in “a world of bikes, outlaws and elaborate tattoos.” Its creative team is male-led, which could be a worry, and they seem to be using Wonder Woman as the lead promo image without actually mentioning whether she’s in it? But I think I liked Bombshells enough to be intrigued at where they’ll take it.

Next up: Greg Rucka again, this time with Volume 1: The Lies and Volume 2: Year One from his 2016 DC Universe Rebirth run!

Comics journey #3: Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka, Vol. 1

My next reading assignment is from the distant past of 2002-2004: Volume 1 of Greg Rucka’s first run on Wonder Woman, another writer who I’d heard great things about. Volume 2 of this is only now about to come out…why, I don’t know. Rucka is also writing Wonder Woman right now and the current stuff will be appearing here soon!

Volume 1 starts off with Hiketeia, which has Diana bound by sacred tradition to protect someone Batman is hunting. It throws up all kinds of moral questions but, Greek tragedy-like, you know there can eventually only be one resolution. You might recognise it by its very excellent cover.

Hiketeia
Yesss.

I have to confess here that I harbour a little petty bitterness towards Batman. The dark and edgy thing has never done it for me and yet they keep making movies about this grumpy dude and his city full of terrible people. His appearances in this volume have a saving sense of humour, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t take great joy in seeing Wonder Woman lay the smackdown on him.

hiketeia don't get up

Whack-a-Bat aside, the main thing I enjoyed about this volume was the domestic moments in Diana’s life. We see a lot of her day-to-day as the Themysciran ambassador, living with the embassy staff who see her in all her roles; they know her better than just about anybody. She’s a little homesick, having lost a few loved ones, and you can tell they’ve come to feel oddly protective of her. It makes her feel so real.

staffers

This Diana will ring true if you’ve ever worked for a really stellar boss. She works damn hard to balance bureaucracy with the straightforward superhero life, which is tough even for a born diplomat. There’s also a lot here about the demands and risks of being a public figure, perhaps because she has no secret civilian identity to hide behind. The main plotline involves the media flurry around Diana’s first book, which turns out to be secretly manipulated by genius billionaire Dr Veronica Cale, who believes Wonder Woman is stealing the spotlight she deserves.

veronica cale crazy

Oy. It took me a while to figure out what it was about Cale that bugged me, exactly. Part of it is the fact that she’s motivated by attention rather than power seems like a gendered choice with some unfortunate implications. But mostly it’s because, although she’s not exactly lovable, I couldn’t hate her. Veronica is smart, rich and powerful, she works hard and does a lot of good, and she feels like that deserves to be acknowledged. And that means she’s “crazy”?

You know what, Veronica Cale? As much as I love Wonder Woman, I’d be pissed off too. You’re right, it’s not fair. They should care, and you’re allowed to care that they don’t care.

The issue of rivalry between powerful women cropped up in Gail Simone’s run too, when Power Girl’s underlying resentment made it all too easy to trick her into attacking Wonder Woman. Both Power Girl and Veronica Cale project their own pride onto Wonder Woman and try to use it against her. The difference is that Power Girl learns what Diana is really about and the two eventually develop a mutual admiration. Resentment isn’t shown as the essential underpinning of how powerful women relate to each other; it’s something individual born out of misunderstanding, and it can change. It doesn’t have to be this way. Bam! Inspiring!

power girl

On a related note: it may be just a product of its time, but this comic also has a tendency to default to sexually abusing women to evoke the reader’s sympathy. The supplicant in The Hiketeia is out for revenge on the men who tricked her sister into drugs and prostitution; Veronica Cale’s mother was a stripper seduced by a client who abuses and abandons her after getting her pregnant. Doctor Psycho goes straight to sexual harassment with every woman he encounters. Read in 2017, it feels boring and cheap. There are plenty of ways to get us to pity a character. It doesn’t have to be sex just because she’s a girl.

Oh, and Themyscira is under threat. Again. For an island of well-trained, pacifist warriors Themyscira sure does end up in jeopardy a lot. This time it’s because Ares has decided war is passé and he is now the God of Trolling Conflict. He tells Diana under the lasso that he won’t mess with Themyscira but his shit-stirring ends in Hera throwing a natural disaster at her own Amazons to spite Zeus. I anticipate a delicious incoming stomping.

Meanwhile, Circe strikes a bargain with Poseidon and the Gorgons of Greek myth to bring Medusa back to life. Stheno the ditziest Gorgon might be a new favourite.

stheno
Lookit her sticking out her tongue. I wanna adopt her.

Something that was totally new to me: Vanessa Kapatelis, the Silver Swan. I had to Google her and I have clearly missed some shit. Wonder Girl Cassie, Diana’s protégée, showed up briefly in the Gail Simone run and has a cameo here too. Man, do I want to see more of her and Diana’s dynamic. That’s a side of Wonder Woman I haven’t seen yet and I am super curious.

cassie

Of the artists and art teams, the standout was Stephen Sadowski (pencils) with Andrew Curry (inks). They do some of the best facial work I’ve seen combined with striking, unusual angles. They’re a great choice for the chilling scene where Veronica Cale reveals her motivations.

kimberly dunn

Finally: Superman’s cameo. Now, I have no beef with Superman and this was a cute, funny scene. But come on. The dude is like, eight feet tall. You seriously expect me to believe this man-mountain can maintain a mild-mannered secret identity?

superman
I apologise for the scan quality…it was a thick book.

Despite my gripes and the datedness of this volume, I generally approve of Rucka’s take on Wonder Woman. Her strength, compassion and truth all come through clearly; she’s still somebody you want to follow. It’s not a bad jumping-in point for a new fan – The Circle etc are more self-contained, but unfortunately they’re out of print and pretty hard to get hold of right now. You’ll miss a few things in the Silver Swan plotline but you’re in at the beginning of the other subplots, and with Vol. 2 coming out you know exactly what to buy next.

I seem to be going further back in publishing time with each volume so far, but don’t worry, the future is almost here…in one sense, anyway. Next up is World War II with Marguerite Bennett’s 2015 Bombshells!

Comics journey #2: Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman!

I’ve been told that Gail Simone’s take on Diana is one of the best, and I loved the brief glimpse I saw of it, so where better to start than her 2008 run on Wonder Woman? There are five books total, starting with The Circle, which is getting lots of new press lately as a good jumping-off point for new fans. Then there’s Ends of the Earth, Rise of the Olympian, Warkiller and Contagion.

There’s a lot here to make a new fan happy – plenty of dramatic action, humour and beautifully done character moments, calibrated to challenge Diana and show her at her shining best. Revisiting the origin story is helpful for the movie crowd, too. And in the first few pages of The Circle I can already tell that this is a writer who is having a fabulous time. Diana is fighting a troop of genetically-enhanced super-intelligent gorilla soldiers, because why not?

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The more I read, the more this Diana’s gentle dry wit grew on me. It just adds that essential something to the character, like spices in a recipe. And you know what, it makes sense. The one thing at the heart of all good comedy is truth. 

And then she’s innocently happy about cake and I might cry.

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I’ve had very little experience with Etta Candy, but I think this version might have spoiled me for all others. LOVE IT. Smart, tough, fascinating. I would read a whole series about this lady. This was also my first introduction to Black Canary, who I know is one of Simone’s favourite characters to write. She’s fun and warm and scrappy and believes in the power of ramen to fix a broken heart and she is going the hell on my reading list.

On the other hand, I now understand why everybody keeps talking about Gail Simone’s twisted mind. The embodiment of genocide, then slowly losing one’s soul – and literally everything about the Citizenry/Space Amazons is pure nightmare fuel. It is horribly, wonderfully creative. God help us all.

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Art-wise, Terry and Rachel Dodson’s style feels definitive, and I dug Nicola Scott, too. Everybody finds babies almost impossible to draw and this Bernard Chang panel gets funnier every time I look at it.

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(Also: no heels. 😊)

Jumping into the middle of a longer continuity like this had some unavoidable downsides. For one thing, this comic has no chill whatsoever. Shit just keeps on going down at an incredible pace. At one point I found myself pleading “Just let her take a shower!” Naturally as a new reader, a few things went over my head. Why is Diana a spy? When did she start dating Tom Tresser? What terrible thing were the Amazons supposed to have done? What happened to all her gods? Who’s this Donna she keeps talking about? (“Donna Troy.”) Who’s this person who looks just like Diana but in a spangly bodysuit? (“Donna Troy.”) Where did Donna Troy come from? (“God only knows.”)

It helps to have a grounding in basic Greek mythology to get the most out of this series. Me? I read an abridged picture-book version of The Odyssey when I was a kid. On the other hand, that means these books stand up to lots of re-reading! Linkara’s review of Amazons Attack helped to fill in some of the continuity gaps later, and it sounds like a mess, but I really feel like I missed out on seeing the build-up of Diana’s relationship with Tom. They have some great moments, but I just never cared as much about the romance as I did about Wonder Woman herself.

The breakup was beautifully written, however. Diana has been trying to stay grounded, but this essential human thing of intimacy on equal terms is alien to her. She still spends so much time in the world of gods and myths that it honestly hasn’t occurred to her that Tom might not be super into the idea of raising her Amazon spawn. This is the same shit Zeus pulls all the time and she came so close! And that revelation is what really brings her back to Earth. That is some goddamn fantastic writing and it shows such a deep understanding of the character. I applaud.

Speaking of which, Simone has talked about the way male writers and readers tend to interpret the Amazons as outright hostile to men in general, but the way Themyscira is presented here is totally free of any of that. It just has that magical quality you find in peaceful places where no male gaze exists (like my favourite place on earth, the ladies-only swimming pond at Hampstead Heath, London.)

By the way, why is nobody talking about the hilarious Wonder Woman movie arc at the end of Ends of the Earth (issues #24 and #25)?! It filled me with glee – not least because of what could so easily have been if we didn’t have Patty Jenkins at the helm.

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Three last things:

  • I cannot believe there is legit a villain called Captain Nazi. Just, wow.
  • I think my favourite moment of the whole run is this, from Warkiller. Poor dumb Achilles. Nobody cares about your machismo.achilles (2)
  • I want this shirt.
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Next: Greg Rucka’s early-2000s run!

 

Comics journey #1: Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman!

Having been knocked off my feet by the movie, I’m kicking off my quest for more Wonder Woman with Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman: a 2014-2015 run of continuity-free short stories by a variety of writer/artist teams. The idea was to get a general idea of things without dropping me in the middle of an ongoing arc. All credit to the film: Diana is everything I thought she’d be and more.

One of the things that put me off comics in the past was the way women are depicted in graphic art – like that infamous Spiderman cover where porno-Barbie Mary Jane is striking a pose no woman has ever struck when nobody was looking. This is where I urge other newbies to do what I did and start off with a collection featuring a variety of artists. It showed me that comics can do better! I really got into some of the artists, like Cat Staggs’ photographic, distressed style. In the end, it was tiny details like facial expressions that were the most important in whether I was drawn into the action or suddenly taken out of it. That, and whether they put Wonder Woman in heels (STOP IT).

Overall it didn’t make much a difference whether I knew the creators involved or not – I devoured all of it. But I recognised a couple of names, and they delivered.

Noelle Stevenson (art) and James Tynion IV (writing) did a cute little story that has stuck in my head ever since. Teenaged Diana makes an unauthorised trip to Man’s World, befriends a gaggle of girls and discovers ice-cream and Dance Dance Revolution. Like everything Stevenson does, it is precious and pure and good.

stevenson-tynion
YES THIS EXACTLY.

I also had fun with “Gothamazon”, Gail Simone’s contribution (art Ethan van Sciver). My husband is a huge Simone fan and while I’d seen her infamous Twitter feed and even met her at a con, I’d never actually read her work. (I am now, obviously, kicking myself.) This Wonder Woman is a seasoned campaigner and her strength is palpable – she’s cool, capable and compassionate. Also…she’s funny? Honestly, at first, it shocked me – like, is she allowed to crack one-liners?

This collection turned out to be a useful primer to a few other characters too. Cheetah shows up a few times, but “Our Little Dance” (writer Adam Beechen) and “Island of Lost Souls” (writer Trina Robbins, art Chris Gugliottia) were heaviest on her origin and motivations. She’s…not the strongest villain ever? I mean, she’s fine, but for one of the main rogues of a major character she’s sort of one-note.

One villain who did grab me was Harley Quinn, who appears in “Gothamazon” as well as in “Echidna” (writer Caitlin Kittredge, art Scott Hampton – incidentally I thought his rough-around-the-edges style worked really well for Echidna). I can’t resist a character with a sense of humour who just enjoys doing what they do.

“Echidna” also included this excellent panel:

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“politely”

Plus, Batgirl, who I’ve been curious about. I’m kind of worried now about Joss Whedon handling her movie, I mean, we all saw that script draft, right? She and Wonder Woman are very territorial in this, which struck me as odd – is there some history there I’m missing?

“A Day In Our Lives” (art and writing Jason Badower) stood out for its art style, which I didn’t love for close-ups but works great for epic pages like this:

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I’m ready to fight those thousand dudes all over again, let’s GO.

The lesbian wedding in this story made it into June’s National Geographic for an article about diversity in comics! I was hella excited to discover it here by accident.

The other thing I LOVED about this was Diana and Superman just hanging out and blowing off steam. Like, there’s the occasional action panel like the one above that brings the shock and awe, but I’m noticing that I’m really here for the character moments. On that note, I quite liked Superman, who’s never piqued my interest before!

I’m starting to honestly love Wonder Woman for the same reasons I loved her onscreen: her empathy, her hopefulness, her integrity and the way she just…is herself. She never wonders if she’s good enough: she knows the right thing to do, and she just does it. Instead of angst, there is Wonder Woman kicking Nazis in the face and revelling in ice-cream and forgiving everyone because she’s strong enough to do it. She gets her enemies on her side by sheer force of personality, and she gets me cheering for her the same way. I didn’t know how much I needed this. There will always be a place for stories about overcoming self-doubt, but what is grabbing me here is the idea of never doubting yourself in the first place. You can just…be free of it. What a concept.

At the same time, I’m finding that all the excuses I had for never getting into comics have vanished. I love sinking my teeth into a good doorstopper of a novel, so I thought I’d fly through comics too fast to get much enjoyment out of them. To my fellow bookworms: don’t let this stop you. There’s enough going on in the artwork and the subtleties of the writing to keep me plenty busy. The silliness and occasional melodrama don’t get in the way, either. Ultimately, I found myself embracing them; they became part of the experience, there to be enjoyed.

Next up: Gail Simone’s 2008 Wonder Woman run!