Jan 21, 2021
Wonder Woman #1 (1987): Gods and Mortals (part 1 of 7)
Back in the mid-to-late ’80s, there were some changes afoot in regards to my comic buying habits. I was growing more and more disillusioned with X-Men and Marvel in general, while at the same time some exciting things were going on at DC. The Crisis on Infinite Earth maxi-series, while in retrospect imperfect, had been a landmark event and sparked a greater interest in DC Comics for me. John Byrne had re-envisioned Superman with his Man of Steel series. Frank Miller had given us Batman: The Dark Knight and now he and artist David Mazzuchelli were delivering the four part Batman: Year One story that tweaked the hero’s origin as well as Jim Gordon’s. And George Perez was giving Wonder Woman the same treatment.
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I had never in my life bought a Wonder Woman comic. I dunno, maybe I thought it was for girls or something. Maybe I thought the invisible jet was a little too camp. But when I heard about artist George Perez being on board, a man whose work I had admired both in the pages of Justice League of America and Crisis, I thought I’d give it a try. Wonder Woman had been through changes before; in the ’60s she had been given a mod makeover by writer/artist Mike Sekowsky…
…which was not an event unique to Diana Prince: what happened at DC during the late ’80s had also happened during the late ’60s, with various heroes getting makeovers. For example, Denny O’Neil had reinvigorated Batman, and had also given us the Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up, as well as working on Superman where he reduced his powers. In Wonder Woman’s case, Mike had robbed her of her powers entirely and refashioned her as more of a globetrotting woman of action not unlike The Avengers‘ Mrs. Peel. Some, like feminist Gloria Steinem, saw this as a sexist move, but it was either this radical change or Wonder Woman not having a comic at all. Wonder Woman returned to her super roots around the time of the TV series, but by 1985, sales were in decline and once more something had to be done.
Which brings us to Wonder Woman #1, published post-Crisis. The first issue starts off with a foreword by George Perez explaining how he got so deeply involved with the Wonder Woman reboot, and I think that if a major name like this hadn’t been involved, the series wouldn’t have enjoyed the same notoriety and success it had. Superman had Byrne, Batman had Miller, and it was only natural that Diana had a major leaguer of her own to usher her into this post-Crisis era. George gives a shout-out to his co-plotter, writer Greg Potter, and also editor Karen Berger. Who’s Karen Berger, you might ask? Oh, only the woman who edited Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, then helped Neil Gaiman get his Sandman off the ground, and then later founded DC’s landmark Vertigo line. Never underestimate the contributions of a good editor.
Our story opens with a quote: “The gods are dead, killed by the one god. Between the men of the new and those of ancient times there will no longer be a thought in common.” This is from Ferdinand Lot, a French historian. I don’t know exactly what it has to do with the following scene of a wounded caveman staggering through a frozen storm, but okay. The caveman has had a run-in with a saber-toothed tiger and it took his hand. And he’s still alive. Why didn’t the saber-tooth finish him off? And how has this guy not bled to death by now? Am I making too big a deal of this? The caveman returns home to his, uh, cave, where a pregnant cavewoman waits for him. The woman tries to comfort the man but he starts projecting all his inadequacies onto her, turning her sympathy around in his head into mockery and emasculation. Eventually, he responds by clubbing her to death.
This… might be the darkest beginning to a comic I’ve ever seen. But then again, according to what I read Karen Berger loves horror, so all of this might have been her idea. I can imagine her standing over Perez’s shoulder, insisting on the need for more gray matter on the floor of the cave. The caveman watches in supernatural horror as a bright light erupts from his dead mate’s body and flies skyward, and he screams in terror of the unknown. Cut to Mount Olympus, 1,200 BC, where Ares, God of War…
…sporting a truly epic look, is addressing his fellow gods, claiming that Artemis’ plan to create a new race of mortals that will cause humans to worship them even more is a really stupid idea and his is so much better. Ares’ plan? Start a war. So… just the same plan he always has. Apollo points out gods are only as strong as the humans who worship them, and letting Ares start a bloodbath would be a Bad Idea. A goddess sitting next to Apollo—I’m guessing it’s Athena—points out how this new race will inspire. Zeus gets tired of all the bickering and thinks the very idea of humans not worshipping them is silly. He exits in a burst of lightning and thunder, and Ares soon follows, saying man will always follow him, and someday even Zeus will bow before his might. Athena asks Zeus’ wife Hera to speak on their behalf and the goddess of marriage, childbirth, and family says she’s going to let her husband cool his jets for a bit, so count her out. So the rest of the gods go ahead with Operation: Amazon without Zeus’ blessing.
Cut to Hades, where the goddesses Athena and Artemis meet with the goddesses Hestia, Aphrodite, and Demeter. Athena and Artemis give them the lowdown on what happened upstairs, which is that Zeus ain’t down with the plan and Hera’s not getting involved. The ladies feel a chill: Charon, the ferryman of the dead has arrived. To pay his price for passage, Aphrodite gives him a lock of her hair and he takes the five goddesses to the cavern of souls. What they see are the souls of women cut down by man’s fear and ignorance. Here the souls have been waiting for rebirth, and the five goddesses sing a chorus to deliver them once more to Earth. The women are reborn on the shores of an island, save for one soul which stays behind, a soul whose destiny, Athena assures the others, has yet to come. The souls rain down upon the Earth to be reborn in new bodies along the shores of a new land…
…where the five goddesses address them. Hippolyte has been chosen as their queen, with Antiope chosen as… co-queen, I guess? I’ve never heard of Antiope before. I get the feeling this is a Snow White/Rose Red deal where everyone remembers the other sister a lot less well. As the goddesses explain how the island will be their new home, complete with woods to provide sustenance and a city to provide shelter, Ares looks on from a distance at these… Amazons, and he’s not amused.
Years later, the legends of the Amazons grow, and so does the jealousy of kings who covert their popularity and power. We find the hero Heracles getting dressed after making time with some pretty wench, and I like the color scheme here, in that he’s wearing orange and green as a bit of a nod to Marvel’s Hercules. The wench mentions how Queen Hippolyte herself has called our hero “Eurystheus’ trained dog” (Eurystheus being the king for whom Heracles must perform his mighty tasks for; Perez and Potter did a ton of research on Greek mythology before starting this series. And there was no Google or Wikipedia back then. They had to actually read books!). Heracles just goes with this and decides he’s leading his men to conquer Themyscira. It isn’t until after he’s left the woman’s boudoir that we discover she’s simply a pawn of Ares. From a hill called Areopagus, Ares monologues like a beast, explaining how Heracles is going to decimate the Amazons, and after all the carnage to come, everyone will be worshipping only him. Cue maniacal laughter!
Leading his boys to Themyscira, Heracles grows more fevered. You see, he’s under a curse from Hera to complete those tasks and shrugging them off is giving him a fever like no one’s business. He reaches the Amazonian city, but the oracle Menalippe foretold his arrival, so he’s confronted outside the gates by Hippolyte and company. Hippolyte tries to reason with Heracles and wants to ally with him, but the man’s blood is absolutely afire and he’s spoiling for a fight…
…and Hippolyte gives him one. Instead of being upset at getting whupped by a girl, Heracles is actually amused.
That night, both armies bed down together. They mingle and Hippolyte thinks that she should never have listened to Menalippe. Well… it looks like you didn’t, did you? I mean, here you are in Heracles’ tent, drinking his wine, and oh, look at that, you’ve just been drugged, and are now unconscious on the floor. I guess Heracles is a sore loser, after all.
What follows is the burning of the Amazonian city and all of them being taken prisoner. Damn, this seems… really easy. Were all the Amazons drugged? Well, they’ve got a ton of backstory to get through so I’ll give the guys a mulligan on this one. The Amazons’ homes are torched and “their bodies ravaged” because you can’t say “rape” in a comic still targeted for kids… sort of. Heracles gloats over a chained up Hippolyte (and the more I write it, the easier it is to spell that name without pausing) as he takes her magic girdle as a prize and says his task fever’s comin’ on strong and he’s heading for Troy.
Hippolyte prays to the gods for help and Athena appears before her, saying that Hippolyte chose to segregate herself and the Amazons from the rest of the world and forgot her purpose on Earth. I get why Hippolyte did this; see what humiliating one man got her? At the same time, when you fail to interact with the rest of humanity then the rest of humanity starts making all sorts of wild assumptions about you. They start to fear you and hate you and covet what you have. Hippolyte wants revenge, but Athena says that’s a fool’s game. She gives Hippolyte a power boost and she uses it to get free and then free her Amazons. But instead of holding back, they go all Quentin Tarantino revenge-like, slaughtering every man in sight. Hippolyte’s sister Antiope says they aren’t done by a long shot, but Hippolyte disagrees.
Antiope, renouncing Athena, gives up her girdle to her sister and departs with those Amazons who see things as she does. And what I find interesting here is Perez and Potter are aware of Greek myths but aren’t bound by them. Grabbing Hippolyte’s girdle was actually one of Heracles’ tasks, and there was an Antiope, but she was either captured by Heracles and given to King Theseus of Athens, or he did the deed himself and she fell in love with him. So we’re seeing that the events told in myth sometimes happened, or they happened but not in the way it was written.
For Hippolyte and her Amazons, the five goddesses appear to them and say they must do a penance for screwing things up so badly; they’re going to live on an island paradise, but beneath it lies an “unspeakable evil” that they have to keep contained, and they must wear their shackles as a reminder to “never err again”. Poseidon himself gets involved, parting the waters for the trip. He’s happy to help because Ares killed his kid, and no, I’m not going to look that up. Still, it’s nice at least one male god got to pitch in a little.
It takes them days to cross the sea floor, but Poseidon keeps the way open and they reach the island. Instead of getting a swanky city already built for them, the Amazons have to do it themselves. Centuries pass and Athena gets some strange feelings welling up in her, and she asks Menalippe what they are. Oh, so now we’re listening to Menalippe? If I had been her, I would have ridden off with Antiope, but whatever. The Amazon with a direct line to the gods explains that what Hippolyte is feeling is a maternal urge; of all the women reborn, she was the only one who had been pregnant when she died. Oh, so Hippolyte was the cavewoman from the start of the story! And the final soul left in the well was her child.
At the gods’ direction, Hippolyte goes to the beach and from the clay forms the likeness of a child, then the gods impart their power into the clay vessel along with the soul.
With each god (and hey, another male god gets to play. Honestly, I kid; this is a female-centric story, and the female gods should darn well take center stage and dominate) granting the babe a power, it feels very Captain Marvel-like. The red and gold Captain Marvel, I mean. The good one.
The baby grows into a girl, and then into a woman, all the while the Amazons imparting to her all the knowledge of their scholars, and the skills of hunting and fighting. Time passes, until one day Menalippe screams in horror; she’s received a warning from the gods. She explains to Hippolyte and the inner circle that there’s a power coming, which could destroy the Earth if it falls into the hands of Ares. The gods either can’t or won’t intervene, and the Amazons have been instructed to choose a champion to take the fight to him. After the others have left, Diana approaches her mother and asks to be included in the tournament, but Hippolyte forbids it. Diana, despondent, feels a need for purpose. And a voice off-camera tells her that a purpose she will have.
The following day, the tournament begins and the participating Amazons are all decked out in similar armor, including face covering helmets. Well, isn’t that convenient. The contestants are put through their paces, exhibiting feats of strength, martial skills, and combat, until…
Ladies and gent… I mean, ladies, we have a winnah! And our victor is:
Hippolyte, like a helicopter mom, wants to back out on the deal, but the other Amazons point out that she can’t. Diana is led to a special secret chamber where she has to face the final trial: a weapon that produces “flashing thunder!”
I’m trying to imagine how much outrage there would be now to see the black Amazon firing a gun. Man, lots of questions here; where did that gun come from? What is this secret and terrible past that the gun represents? Well, you’re not going to get those answers in this issue. Diana passes the trial, much to her mom’s relief. She’s now reconciled herself with her daughter being the chosen one. It’s explained that Diana was actually named after someone who bore a standard that Diana’s “garb” shall now bear. And thus…
A hero is born! Wonder Woman #1 moves hella fast, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Anyone who’s regularly read my stuff probably thinks this is me beating a dead horse… and you’re likely right, but if this were published today the story would have been told in at least six issues. I think writers like Hickman and Bendis would have just loved delving deep into Greek mythology and uncovering a wealth of gods, demi-gods, and heroes to sprinkle all throughout the story of the Amazons. But the comic’s called “Wonder Woman”, not “Amazons” and Perez, Potter, and Berger strive to give us just enough background to explain to readers new and old what the new status quo is here. So yeah, the story does move at a breakneck pace, but damn is it entertaining. Also, we see the groundwork laid for future stories, such as Antiope’s faction, the mystery of the gun, and the woman Diana’s named after.
Next time: Diana takes on her new duties as champion, and she meets her first man!