Thursday, 21 July 2011

DC Retroactive 1970s Wonder Woman review

'Groovy' is the buzz word used to describe this callback to Wonder Woman's days as globetrotting adventurer Diana Prince. After reading the issue, that's not the first term that springs to mind.

As the Sixties ended, plunging sales led to a radical revamp for Wonder Woman. Bereft of her powers, she used martial arts and sex appeal as the DC Universe's own Emma Peel, taking on spies, dragon ladies, barbarians and butch biddies in wacky, fast-moving adventures. The best were written and drawn by Mike Sekowsky.

Others were written by Denny O'Neil.

And it's O'Neil who returns to Di Prince as part of DC's Retroactive project, in which original creators bid to recapture the glories of earlier years. Well, whatever O'Neil's caught here, I hope it's not too infectious. For this story is a mess.

For one thing, it's not even set during the Di Prince years, but some unspecified time afterwards. That's likely because Paradise Island was off in another dimension at the time, but it's a big part of this story. We join Diana as she's parachuting over her homeland, which is being dragged beneath the sea. Diving down, she comes across a mysteeeeeeeerious base where a mysteeeeeeeerious head in a shapeshifting green object - now it's a cube, now it's a pyramid - tells her she's failed, sinned etc. She must undertake three tasks in order to save Paradise Island from a gigantic swinging blade.

Diana reluctantly agrees and the head says that first she must be as she was when she sinned. Her costume changes into one of Di Prince's trademark white outfits, and her powers drain away (not that they were very impressive earlier, given that she could barely swim underwater).

So off she pops through various scenarios, meeting and defeating Joan of Arc and Goliath, while a butterfly hangs around. It turns out the insect is mechanical and when smashed, Paradise Island is restored to the surface and Queen Hippolyta appears to point out that Diana never faced a third ordeal, but maybe a bit of a swim counted as one. We never learn what Diana's alleged sin was and the head isn't seen again, but a hyper-chatty Amazon Wise Woman speculates that the whole experience was caused by some ancient random technology, er … it's hard to spell it out, as it makes no sense even to the characters. The final two panels are simply baffling.
And that's it. The story just stops. No 'the end' (or in proper Groovy style, 'NEVER the end'), no 'to be continued' - just a very worried-looking Wonder Woman, then a reprint of her tussle with a terribly cute Catwoman from WW (first series) #201, courtesy of O'Neil and Dick Giordano. It's not bad, but even that just stops - it was the first of a two-parter involving barbarians Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but the next issue blurb has been pulled. If whoever put this book together - hello editors Kwanza Johnson and Chynna Clugston Flores - were on the ball they'd direct readers to the four Diana Prince trades that came out in the last couple of years. But they don’t, so no sales there (I'll do it myself then - see below!) just a chance to enjoy some utterly sumptuous Dick Giordano artwork.

The main story is drawn by the talented J Bone, who does a nice job in the Di Prince sequences, but Lord, his Wonder Woman is grisly, a heavy-eyed crone in crumpled, star-spangled granny pants. Any kids who see this woman will run off screaming. Hippolyta is drawn as a brunette rather than the blonde of the period, which is typical of this comic's sloppiness. Another anachronism is O'Neil's use of narrative captions rather than thought balloons - I don't care what the kids today do, either we're going for a Seventies vibe or we aren't.

It's not all awful. I liked Diana's humorous, no-nonsense tone, and Bone's martial arts sequences are great. The cover's rather pretty, even if the presence of two Di Princes to one Wonder Woman has me scratching my head.

But it's mainly awful. The story, with its quest set-up, reads as if O'Neil thought he was writing a Sixties Retroactive comic and came up with a Robert Kanigher plot, then realised it was meant to be the Seventies and tweaked the story. Denny O'Neil likely knows what the story is about - given his interest in Eastern mysticism it's perhaps a metaphor for Diana on a drugs trip - but he's not given the reader much to go on. It's amazing to think that a man who's won awards and taught the skills of comic writing can produce a story so unsatisfying, so badly structured. Maybe the final page just dropped off the printer?

Whatever the case, don't buy this. If you want to see Wonder Woman as she was then, get the trades or check them out of the library. But don't reward DC for putting out this shoddy product.

17 comments:

  1. Too late, already bought it.

    Also, why is WW not flying her robot plane, aka invisible plane?

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  2. I bought it, too, on the strength of Bone's artwork and the promise of some Diana Prince action. (I liked his airy cartooning, but you're right, his Prince is better than his WW by far.)

    I might be able to clear up the puzzling cover: We're only actually seeing one Diana there, in the center. She's standing in a department-store style mirror, where she reflects as Wonder Woman on one side and the zipped-up Prince on the other. (There's also a third reflection, a Ross Andru-style costume, directly behind her.)

    My guess is that the ending where Wonder Woman still might think she needs redemption is there to set up the Labors of Wonder Woman storyline, but that's only a wild guess.

    I haven't read the reprint yet, but it's also new to me, so there's that, at least.

    If you get a chance, check out the Flash Retro-70s issue. In that one, Cary Bates just goes flat-out crazy with his plot. The art's a bit of a letdown, but the story feels like it could have been plucked from a time capsule. The "adult" themes it has (has Barry's speed made him sterile? Is Iris two-timing Barry with Grodd, of all beings?) are dealt with in exactly the way these things would have been handled in the 70s Bates era -- with cloning, hypnotism, battle-suits, ape-human hybrids, and not too much detail on where babies come from.

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  3. I regret the wasted minutes lost when I read that comic. I couldn't even finish it; I finally ended up flipping ahead to the reprint. Calling it a mess is too charitable.

    "The best were written and drawn by Mike Sekowsky. Others were written by Denny O'Neil." This is as perfect a capsule summary of that WW era as anyone will find.

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  4. Im not sure what was going on in this comic...WW parachuting inot the ocean? Couldnt she glide on air-currents or use her plane?
    I thought at first that she was still de-powered Di Prince and thats the explanation for the parachute; shed gotten changed to her old WW costume for a visit to P.I. which had returned from its dimension...but no!
    How odd, WW not tusing her powers, tha trouble she had swimming...the [sigh] sword carrying; and that ending! I presume that was an ending...how very odd indeed.

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  5. So how was it for you, Dannyagogo? And, stupidity.

    I like your mirror explanation for the cover Rob, but I just think one image of the old and one of the New Wonder Woman would have made more sense. Still, this was the best piece by Bone offered up by the comic, so I shouldn't be too ungrateful.

    The 12 Labours idea is indeed wild. We could maybe reach that far, though weren't the JLA entry trials Diana's way of proving to herself that she still had what it takes rather than a bid for redemption?

    Thanks for the kind words RAB.

    Karl, 'odd' is about right - more polite than I could muster!

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  6. This book truly was a mess - was does it take to become an editor at DC these days? Also Mart, I want to read your take on the new Justice League preview. I was quite underwhelmed, to say the least.

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  7. You're kinder about the art than I was. Especially given that we got to see in the reprint how nicely Diana non-WW was drawn back in the 70s.

    I thought Bones' take on both WW and Diana was simply ugly. Even the cover--in one of the mirrors she looks like Lucille Ball after her 4th facelift! Yuck! Why would girls and young women want to pick up a book with that cover? And the art inside was just as painful.

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  8. Whew! I dodged a bullet here. I had planned on getting all the retro books, but ended up only grabbing Batman.

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  9. D, count me incredibly underwhelmed so far as the JLA preview is concerned, it's like a bad Nineties comic crossed with growly Christian Bale Batman. But let's see how the whole issue looks.

    Timbotron, read someone else's copy, I'd be tickled to hear your thoughts.

    Fantastic Lucille Ball line, Brainy!

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  10. I wanted to like it much more than I did, but I still liked it more than you did.

    It's all down to Bone's art, I think. I loved the indy vibe even if it had NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ERA REPRESENTED.

    Kanigher? I'm not sure I see it. It reminded me more of Steve Gerber's surrealism, which is more distinctly 1970s. Again, not particularly reminiscent of Wonder Woman during the 70s, and it's not like Bone looks anything like Colan, but there is that.

    The ending is completely ambiguous, and if this were an indy comic (like Marvel's Strange Tales anthology or Bizarro Comics), I'd be cheering. It's puzzling in this context and genre however.

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  11. I have to agree with most of the review. One trivial nitpick: As I recall, when Diana got her powers and costume back, her memories of her non-powered adventures were wiped out. When Superman invited her back into the JLA, she had no recollection of ever resigning. That's why she suggested the Twelve Labors to "prove to herself that she still had what it takes." No?

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  12. Siskoid, I don't know if you ever read the Kanigher Wonder Woman at the dawn of the Sixties? She was forever undergoing three-part trials to win her girdle, establish her oaths or whatever.

    I'd have enjoyed the Bone art more were he given the freedom to draw in a style he's more comfortable with.

    Bob, you're bang on, thank you very much for the reminder. I wish DC would collect those issues.

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  13. Bob Kanigher had an interesting philosophy. He said that he never knew what he was going to write until he started typing. He believed that if you planned your story in advance, then you were a typist, not a writer. This method seemed to serve him well for war stories (which are set in a pretty chaotic environment to begin with), but his superhero stories were often painful to read -- particularly Wonder Woman.

    Despite the randomness of his plots, though, that three-part structure was pretty common in his stories. Then again, the same was true of a lot of Silver Age DC series; Gardner Fox's JLA and Dave Wood's Dial H for Hero come to mind.

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  14. Kanigher really was one of the greats, despite some odd decisions and stories. I met him at a con once, he very gracious with his time.

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  15. As an older(45) comic fan, I loved the 70's greatness, the quirky stories and titles, and especially all the great artists and writers that hit their prime back then. That said, this Bone guy's art absolutely stinks, imo. To those who like it, more power to you, but new comics don't vaguely resemble books from even the 90's all the less the 70's, which is why I rarely buy new books, the ridiculous cover prices don't help either.

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  16. I can see where the Kanigher reference comes from, Martin, now that you explain it.

    But that's more 60s than 70s, not that this book ever manages to stick to a single era. It's very strange.

    I think maybe DC bit off way more than it could chew this summer (Flashpoint and then the reboot) to really give Retroactive the attention or thought it deserved.

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  17. Hi Anon, have you seen J Bone's artwork when he's drawing as himself, rather than attempting to ape Mike Sekowsky. You may like it.

    Ah, the Seventies ... paper heart goddeses, Steve Trevor's Revolving Door of Death and Mother Juju.

    Siskoid, you're likely right. DC certainly bit off more than my wallet can chew - so much product!

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