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Wonder of Wonders – The Lasso’s Infinitely Elastic, the Stories Don’t Have to be, too

by Martin Gray

When Wonder Woman started out, each issue of her comic featured her in as many as four stories for 10 cents. They were ‘only’ 13 pages long, but a quick look at the Archive Editions or Chronicles points up that they were packed with incident and variety. That first issue, for example, featured a retelling of the origin …

… hi-jinks at the circus …

… a prison-set encounter with Paula Von Gunther …

… and a trip to Etta Candy’s ranch for a spot of spy smashing.

Whew! In those initial years Diana fought Nazis, spies, Nazi spies, mad gods, ape girls, the odd Cheetah … and the comic sold by the bucket load.

By the Seventies, in common with other DC books – which had long since seen their page count shrink from 64 interior pages to 32 – the norm was a single 17pp story. And if you were lucky, Wonder Woman might also pop up in a Twinkies ad.

Today we get 22pp for $2.99, with a single story. Or rather, an episode.

Wonder Woman these days follows the prevailing fashion for superhero books of long-form stories. There are occasional one-offs and two-parters, but they’re rarer than a Diet Coke in Etta Candy’s fridge. Under most recent writer Gail Simone the stories tended to last at least four issues, with one, ‘Rise of the Olympian’, taking eight months. And even then plot threads continued into the next four-parter, ‘Warkiller’ – it’s actually tough for me to recall which plot points belonged to which arc.

A story lasting two-thirds of a year is asking a lot from a reader, and with no guarantee of a neat ending, the patience can be tried even further. I won’t rehearse the good and bad points of the issues – I gave my opinions at appalling length on my blog – but it’s fair to say that an awful lot of posters on the message boards (and yes, I know they’re not representative of the entire readership, but they’re representative of buyers who care enough to share opinions) felt ‘Rise of the Olympian’ in particular could have been less sprawling. I know that I was willing the sequence to end after the first few issues, already ready to move on to something new. The two-part team-up between Diana and Black Canary which followed was a delightful palate-cleanser.

Gail leaves as regular writer with the current #44 and is already in pastures new, courtesy of the returned Birds of Prey and upcoming Welcome to Tranquility. Ready to climb into the Invisible Plane and set a course for adventure is J Michael Straczynski, the mastermind behind Babylon 5, Changeling and writer of popular runs on Spider-Man, Thor and more. It’s his work on Thor that many people suspect won him the Wonder Woman gig, even though the similarities between the strips are superficial – lead character from a fantasy land, lots of run-ins with gods and monsters.

And it’s his work on Thor that has me worried. Never mind that a lot of the time JMS seemed more interested in the supporting players than the title character. No, what gives me pause is the epic length of the stories he told. His first issue was dated September 2007, his final, November 2009 and the run told one long story, detailing the effects of Asgard being plucked from the heavens and placed in Oklahoma. OK, it wasn’t my cup of tea – I bailed after a few issues, finding the pace too leisurely – but it was certainly an admirably well-thought-out sequence, loved by many and a great seller for Marvel.

But oh, the length. Should JMS take a similar tack with Wonder Woman? Maybe. No one at Marvel thought he could make Thor a hit – the book had been canceled for a couple of years before he brought the character back to prominence. And some might say that with Wonder Woman not exactly flying off the shelves (or should that be gliding on air currents?), what harm could trying the JMS approach do?

I’ve certainly sympathy with that argument, but seeing the mixed reviews ‘Rise of the Olympian’ received, I’m not sure Wonder Woman fans are open to stories likely to go on even longer. And while Thor has built-in boy appeal, it takes a lot to get casual readers to try Wonder Woman (‘A girl? Ick. Hang on, does she have big tits and a sword?’).

So while I wish JMS huge success, I’d love to see another approach tried, one he’s proven well suited to. Single issue stories. Maybe even two strips to one book, on occasion, making Wonder Woman a comic you don’t have to buy every month, but one you want to because you never know what you’re going to get. Apart from quality.

Because non-continued stories allow for variety of tone and theme. One of the big complaints about the Wonder Woman comic over the last decade and more is that it’s been too much centred on the mythological. Barely a month has gone by without some upstart god causing trouble for Diana. Yet Wonder Woman is a superhero from a civilization of peace-loving warriors, with ties to a super-spy organization and friends ranging from the strictly scientific to the mind-blowingly mystical. She has a foot in many worlds, so why not exploit her genre-spanning status, the ease with which she fits into different milieus?

After all, why does a writer have to have a ‘vision’, wrapped up in an all-encompassing arc that may or may not ultimately work, but which continually defers the pleasure of a conclusion? If a story’s not chiming with readers, they might decide to give up the book for a few months and check back later. So, writers, why not offer up little gems of variety, show us more facets of Diana?

For example, would it be out of the question for our heroine, on a day off from her civilian work, to decide to bring in, say, Deathstroke? She’s Wonder Woman, why would that take more than an afternoon? Showing us why not – there’s drama.

She’s a curious soul, maybe Diana decides to look up her teenage pals Mer Boy and Bird Boy – who knows what a good writer could do with this weird pair.

Diana spends a week with the Amazons as their very own Wonder Woman, to let them see what they’ve unleashed on the world. Could be interesting.

Phil Jimenez showed us Diana as scientist, let’s see her try to implement one of her notions. Maybe even succeed.

OK, these may not be the best ideas, but you get my drift – throwaway notions that could bring conflict, illumination, fun.

DC tried a genre-spanning approach during the Diana Prince, Wonder Woman years, with a de-powered Diana learning karate so that she can continue adventuring. And adventure she did. Her globe and dimension-trotting took in spy scenarios, gothic romance, high adventure, sword and sorcery, urban realism, straightforward superheroics and more. And by the time an adventure with the Amazons appeared, the readers were ready for Hippolyte and co, and appreciative.

All right, so the experiment in Modesty Blaise/Emma Peel-style hi jinks was over after four years, but the return to the traditional powers and costume wasn’t all about sales – it was at least as much to do with riding the crest of Gloria Steinem’s feminist wave … which is ironic, as the self-possessed, independent Diana Prince was far more a figure to be admired and emulated than the massive milksop who returned in 1972.

But that’s another article. My point is that for four years all bets were off. As in the Golden Age, the Wonder Woman comic encompassed a range of genres and readers seemed to like it.

So why not try that approach again? After all, going in the same direction as every other superhero title isn’t doing Wonder Woman any favours. And JMS is singularly well-equipped to send Diana spinning off into all manner of new directions. Don’t believe me? Check out his current run on The Brave and the Bold; for the past eight months he’s been giving us done-in-one stories teaming denizens of the DCU, including – in one of the most praised comics I can remember – Diana herself.

His immensely satisfying and enjoyable scripts have featured the Second World War, the 30th Century, flower power, dark Lovecraftian gods and more. I’d go so far as to say that these issues represent some of JMS’s finest work in comics.

For while I’ve no doubt that JMS’ long-form storylines, such as Thor and Spider-Man, feature a structure every bit as tight and intelligent as used for B&B, narrowing the focus down to a single issue gives us the rewards of said structure immediately – beginning, middle, end; action, theme, character. It’s all in one place, accessible and entertaining. And to me, instant gratification contributes towards enjoyable comics. Maybe that’s a short-attention-span Gemini thing (not that we Geminis believe in astrology, except on the days we do), but one of the reasons I finally stopped following X-Men religiously was because I realized I’d be dead before more than two subplots concluded. I love to get a complete story in a single issue, and it’s something few writers seem able to do – or at least, willing to try – these days. But JMS, having worked in TV, knows how to break a story down into beats that make for a satisfying whole. And as a longtime comics fan, he knows how to apply this to the artform.

Which is why I’d like him to apply it to Wonder Woman. Make the book new AND old reader-friendly, with short, grabby tales to make us buy that first issue, and compelling characters and subplots to have us coming back month after month. And as the sales figures rise, he might consider stories of a differently ambitious nature. By all means, go longform (I’m avoiding the term ‘decompressed’ as it’s essentially negative, and it doesn’t represent what JMS does – while his stories can take awhile to wrap, there’s always something important to the overall picture going on), but not right away.

We’ve all seen Diana’s star-spangled panties, JMS – how about showing us your shorts?

Martin Gray is a journalist in Edinburgh. He’s a regular comics reviewer for, er, himself at Too Dangerous for a Girl: (http://dangermart.blogspot.com). Actually, you can also find him in the Comic Buyers Guide, at less rambling length.

25 Comments

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4HY_PS_Hoc

I’m really hoping for the best for Wonder Women and JMS. I get Wonder Women, it’s a shame many comic writers don’t.

It’s a little unfair to use just the monthly dates on JMS’s Thor run, seeing as how it was delayed several times. There were a few two or three month gaps between issues.

Ethan Shuster

June 3, 2010 at 7:05 am

Isn’t this really something that can be said about many, many comics series and companies. I find the problem with long term stories — hell, even the four-issue story arc method — is that they’re sometimes just a reason to drag out a story, and give us single issues that have no satisfying ending. Ongoing TV series have continuing “mythologies” that are a part of all episodes, but can remain episodic. In other words, a story begins and ends without wrapping up every thread and storyline in the entire series.

Every once in a while, we get a comic issue advertised as “a perfect starting point for new readers”. Shorter arcs and the occasional standalone issue would help lessen the need to come up with these relaunches for new readers.

Also, I’ve noticed that without the interest of making stories self-contained, less happens and it takes a lot less time to read an individual issue. But that may be a separate problem altogether.

Ugh. Gray could’ve picked a better panel to show how well JMS would handle Diana. Crushing some poor fool’s balls because he thinks Wonder Woman (whom he doesn’t even realize he’s speaking to) is lame? That’s NOT what she is about at all.

Anyway, about the lenght of the stories, I agree- while I can see why publishers want them to be long – to fit as single stories in trades, or to attract the attention of those who like to see characterization and plot take their time to develop- the done-in-one stories are more appealing to the casual reader. But hey, can’t we have it both ways? Have single-issue stories that feature secondary plotlines that DO take a while to resolve. You get the sense of completion in one issue but, IF it interests you enough, you get stuff to follow in the long run as well.

Overall I’m not very hopeful with JMS taking over WW, but mostly because I still expect the DC executives butting in and demanding she snap necks and cut heads to “boost sales.”

Andrew Collins

June 3, 2010 at 7:54 am

Check out his current run on The Brave and the Bold; for the past eight months he’s been giving us done-in-one stories teaming denizens of the DCU, including – in one of the most praised comics I can remember – Diana herself.

Really?! Most praised? Maybe I was reading a different comments’ section here then, because when that issue was discussed here on CSBG, it generated what I thought was much more ire than praise. I even commented on how bad an issue I thought it was, so it did not exactly fill me with any confidence that JMS can write a good Wonder Woman story…

While the short story is reader-friendly, I honestly don’t think it’s KEEP-reader-friendly, and thjat’s why you don’t see it very often.

Andrew Collins

June 3, 2010 at 7:56 am

We’ve all seen Diana’s star-spangled panties, JMS – how about showing us your shorts?

You came up with this line first and then wrote the rest of the write-up Dashielle Hammett style didn’t you? :-)

There’s no reason why tpb’s can’t be composed of a collection of stories. If we say that a tpb holds six issues, that could be six singles, one single and a 5-parter, three 2-parters… Well, you could do an entire KenDoku puzzle with combination possibilities.

Longer stories take the risk of not being able to switch off from an unpopular storyline. If the writer runs with Story A, a 6-parter, and the readers fall less and less in love with it (or loathe it to begin with), they have to wait until all 6 issues are done before they can hope for something they’ll like. With varying story lengths, a writer can experiment to discover what it is the readers want. When that is discovered, perhaps a longer story can be created catering to that. Or not.

Wonder Woman is DC’s best genre-hopper. Unlike her super-cohorts, she easily goes from S&S to superheroics to SF to mythology to urban settings. To me this means more short arcs, which give more variety to the reader while still focusing on Diana.

If I were a comics editor I would definitely nix 6-parters! Much too long. A four-part story would be the basis for a very special and rare event indeed. Two- and three-part stories are comfortably long to hold my attention and provide a reasonable length for a solid plot. One-issue stories are a delightful surprise, usually fast-moving and tight, and should be a great jumping-on point for the new reader.

I’ve always preferred the shorter stories that were part of a larger arc. You get a plot resolved with most (if not all) questions answered, but a mystery or problem remains that it will take other stories to find the steps for ultimate solution.

Bravo, Mart! Although I don’t think one necessarily has to have one or the other. I seem to recall a Conway storyline essentially lasting for two or so years, but each one-off or two-parter was essentially a self-contained story: that whole prime planner is Morgan Tracy but ultimate threat is Kobra storyline. And during that time we got introduced to the new cheetah, guest-spots with Animal Man, a two-parter with Angle Man, and the first appearance of the ever-fab Mother Juju.

I’m certainly not suggesting that JMS write like Conway, but I don’t think the storytelling has to be exclusive to short format or long format. I think the main focus can be on short with much smaller clues that build to the big. I think this is part of what went awry with Gail’s ROTO. There was never a sense of “That’s finished. On to the next adventure while slowly figuring out the greater mystery” because all the plotlines seemed to spill into one another the whole time. And it’s hard to do that when the character has one monthly title. Of course, I’m also saying that without having yet read ROTO in a single sitting yet. I’m just recalling my impressions as ROTO unfolded.

And I certainly never thought I’d reference anything in Conway’s lengthy run as a way to tell a story.

Carol! Quit posting my ideas only minutes before I post them! :-)

“one of the most praised comics I can remember”

Count me among the incredulous for this. I remember it as widely-reviled.

You know what makes bad stories? Writers trying to write to a specific length or style that is not their own. Look at Daniel Way’s “Five Issue Arc” era, or Bendis’ non-street stuff. JMS does long stories with slow burn subplots for the most part. Yes, most of the best runs are full of self-contained stories than connect with longrunning subplots. But that is the style those writers were comfortable with. Yes, JMS got his start in TV where they do that, but a TV script is longer than a comic script.

Check out his current run on The Brave and the Bold; for the past eight months he’s been giving us done-in-one stories teaming denizens of the DCU, including – in one of the most praised comics I can remember – Diana herself.

Sarcasm?

Very fun article, as always, Martin. Glad to see you back!

Nice work Mart.

To my taste, the best paced comic series for me was Gaiman’s SANDMAN. He would tell a long, multi-issue story that wrapped up neatly. Then, he would drop a series of one-off issues before starting another multi-issue story. Sometimes elements would come back and other times not. That isn’t an approach that would suit every character, but it seems like it would work well for Wonder Woman.

Honestly, I think that it is symptom of a more widespread problem at DC. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern and the rest evolved in a universe where they rarely interacted with each other outside the JLA. Their individual continuities do not mesh together perfectly and, therefore, they share a universe less easily than the various Marvels. Recently, the way DC has chosen to address that is by shoving the characters firmly into their own little corners. WW is in white toga land, Superman is on New Krypton, etc. It is a disservice to the diversity of stories those characters can bring to the table.

Much like Howard Cosell’s popularity, that Brave and the Bold issue had the distinction of being both one of the most praised comics of recent history and one of the more derided comics (“more” instead of “most,” because people deride soooooo many comics).

So I think Martin is accurate, as would someone who said that the issue was knocked by a lot of people.

Thomas DeWitt

June 3, 2010 at 10:48 am

I would love to see The return of old-school superhero stories in Wonder Woman, I would like to see her older villains re-imagined, as well as new ones introduced. I would love to see Diana have a lasting nemesis , because it seems that the ones she faces outside of Circe and Ares are rather forgettable. I think a break from the Amazons and the Gods for a while would a refreshing change,as well as a focus on Diana’s personal life away from Themiscyra. The one thing I hope JMS keeps is the way Gail depicted the effect and power of the lasso, That was one of the many things I liked about her run. . If he is going to keep Diana in the realm of myth though, I think he should have her venture out into the other pantheons, meet and confront other gods and their champions/avatars.

Thanks for the comments, everyone; I’m happy to get the subject of story length discussed, whether or not I’m laughed off the stage!

And yeah, this piece could have been written with reference to many a character, Ethan, but the arrival of JMS on Wonder Woman presents a nice opportunity. And I stick by my contention that, to nick Carol’s phrase, ‘Wonder Woman is DC’s best genre-hopper’ so is particularly well suited to the variety of tales shorter stories would permit/demand..

RWS, there was no deliberate sleight of typing hand as regards the spacing out of the Thor issues – as I said, I never read them all, so didn’t notice the delays.

Sijo, the both ways thinking would suit me, this was often the approach of Seventies Marvel, yes (boy, I miss the Defenders!)?

Regarding whether or not the Di, Zee and Babs B&B was well-received, it certainly went down well in the reviews I saw. So it went down like a bag of sick elsewhere, huh? I loved it, it was a terrific, respectful continuity implant that could be added to one’s personal canon, or enjoyed as an interesting idea, but ignored thereafter. To me, it made a lot more sense than Batman laughing with the Joker in The Killing Joke.

Ha, you made me laugh as regards Hammett, Andrew. Actually, the whole piece was just another excuse to see the THEM cover.

Carol, cheers, and Frank, nice one re: Conway’s approach – he’s one chap I’d love to see take another crack at Diana – his recent Animal Man mini was terrific.

Dalarsco, good point about writers needing to stick to what suits them, but I reckon shorter-length stories suit JMS.

Bill, sarcasm? Not in this case, though I have been known to stretch to mild irony.

Gail, thanks for defining Diana, I really hope your great work on her character isn’t undone. I suspect that while JMS may take a different tack with regard to Diana’s world, he has enough class to take your take on board.

Dean, thank you. I wonder what Neil Gaiman would do with Diana – I doubt it would be as grim as his work with Lyta Hall and co.

Brian, thanks for the clarification (and giving me house room!).

Thomas, couldn’t agree more about the lasso, Gail made it as powerful as in the Silver Age, and pleasingly mysterious.

yes, i agree with most of these statements…8-part stories are far too long, esp when ROTO was meant to be the defininig tale of Simones reign. Carol is so right…2 or 4 part tales are more than enough to get the plot across,,, in the 70s Dr Who they had 4-part serials…1 being the set-up, 2 was thecharacters organizing, 3 was the action coming together and 4 was the big finish…perfect! just finished reading [by coincidence] the Conway WW tales from the late 70s/early 80s and youre right-theres a long story-arc, punctuated gy mini-stories that break it up so its easier to read. quite remarkable when you go back and read it, but then our Diana has always had stories that are a bliss to read , in whatever genre.

Mr. Gray, I think what hits most of us wrong about the B&B story is the whole “Barb’s paralysis cannot be prevented because it’s important that she becomes Oracle” idea (which to be fair isn’t JMS’s, he’s following stuff from Booster Gold) and its metafictional angle (ie, the REAL reason it cannot be prevented is because DC wants her as Oracle and not as Batgirl.) If JMS had to go along with that, well, then his story is somewhat justified (although wasn’t his B&B run supposed to be continuity-free?) Also, where the hell has this oracle that infallibly predicts the future whose word Diana so blindly trusts been before? And finally, the whole “You HAVE to accept fate” idea, in a universe where ANYTHING up to and including the changing of history itself can and has happened (and Diana knows it) is even more frustrating.

By itself, the idea that Diana would help Barb spend one last happy night is touching. It’s the set-up that seems shaky. Cannot Babs just be told about her future and convinced to switch? Is the crippling REALLY necessary? Just to salvage one old Joker story? And some creators complain about us fans being obsessive! :P

Oh and Diana as a literal ball-breaker? No. Just. No. :P

Ethan Shuster

June 3, 2010 at 6:43 pm

As I hinted at earlier, I believe part of the reason we get story arcs is because it takes longer to tell a story. I think one big part of that is the greater focus on art and even the “celebrity” artists. A splash page used to be a special thing, and now many comics are full of them. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing, but a good example is checking the article on this blog about the “Who is Donna Troy?” storyline. Lots of story in that single issue. And even with all those individual panels per page, the art still looks good. Today, that story would at least be stretched to two issues.

I think there is a difference between a long story arc and long term stories. ROTO was a long story arc. It really dealt with only one problem within a limited time period(maybe a week maybe two?). Genocide was unleashed and Wonder Woman fought her for 8 issues, with the Zeus/Achilles subplot in the background. JMS’ Thor run was a long term story but each issue basically stood on it’s own. One issue was Thor coming back and raising Asgard, the next was Thor going to Africa and finding the Warriors Three, then Thor’s meeting with Ironman, then the two-parter with Odin(which was really the only “arc” in the whole thing). The overall story was about Thor looking for his people and Sif in particular but each issue ended on it’s own.

George Grattan

June 3, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Apropos of nothing in particular that this thought-provoking article discusses, I decided I won’t be checking out JMS’s WW at all the second I read that his opening storyline would feature the destruction and/or disappearance of Themiscyra. Ho-freaking-hum. What’s that gonna be, the 10th time in the last 20 years? Honestly, DC-Powers-That-Be, this idea, should it come up in any writer’s pitch for this series/character, should be considered a perfect time to say, “Um, why don’t we find another project for you?” (Same goes for Aquaman/Atlantis…) Just inspires no confidence whatsoever in the overall creative vision for the property. Downplay “Paradise Island” as much as you like, sure, but put it through the wringer again? Lazy and unimaginative.

I’ve been saying it for years, but I’ll say it again: Wonder Woman needs to be a WWII comic. It takes a threat on the scale of The Axis to get her to leave Paradise. She needs the casual sexism of the 1940s male to play off of. And Wonder Woman can anchor a new line of WWII books for DC.

Also, marching bands and spankings.

The problem with one issue stories is there’s little room for character interaction, unless that’s all there is. Since most readers demand lots of action, they rarely got much else back in the old days when short stories were the norm. But stretching things out, Bendis-style, accomplishes nothing. Every story has a natural length and squeezing it or stretching just weakens the story..

I had more to say, but my keyboard is broken and typing with the mouse is agonisingly slow and tedious.

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