Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
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.
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