Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Wonder Woman #0. Written by Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, Spaceman) and drawn by Cliff Chiang (Human Target, Green Arrow And Black Canary), it continues the reinvention of Wonder Woman by taking inspiration from the past, specifically the Silver Age stories that have been written out of continuity.
Wonder Woman, daughter of Hippolyta (queen of the Amazons) and Zeus (king of the gods). This is a much stronger hook than a Wonder Woman, made of clay. Brian Azzarello’s origin change for DC’s premier superheroine has rejuvenated the character and made Wonder Woman one of the standout books of the New 52. Joined by artist Cliff Chiang, Azzarello has crafted a family drama of mythical proportions, with Diana trapped in the middle of a power struggle for the throne of Olympus. With her Amazonian mother and sisters dead by the hands of Zeus’ enraged wife Hera, the only family Diana has left is a group of backstabbing deities, each pursuing their own individual agendas.
One figure who has been largely absent from the battle for Olympus is Ares, War himself, who has chosen to live among the carnage of man rather than gods. Azzarello hinted at a past relationship between Wonder Woman and Ares when Strife invited him to Diana’s wedding to Hades, an invitation he mournfully declined. #0 reveals why, showing that Ares was a father figure to Diana at a turning point in her youth, grooming her to be his replacement until she turned away from his merciless teachings. Recasting Ares as a former ally of Wonder Woman changes their dynamic considerably from past iterations, but it’s a shift that makes sense for both characters. Diana’s extraordinary talent combined with her simmering fury makes her an ideal candidate to take over for Ares whenever he decides to abandon his post, but ultimately her sense of compassion is what prevents her from fully committing. Diana’s harassment by the other children on Paradise Island has taught her what it means to be hurt and rejected, and that compassion is what separates her from the entirety of her father’s side of the family.
It’s fitting that Ares would train Diana during the year leading up to her 13th birthday, the moment when she stops being a child and begins her transition into adulthood. On her birthday, Ares leads Diana to the lair of the minotaur, where she will slay the beast and bring the head to Queen Hippolyta, a tribute so that her passing year can be acknowledged. Once inside, Diana uses the knowledge she’s learned to put down the beast, but when it comes time for the killing blow, she hesitates after catching her reflection in the minotaur’s blood-red eye. Created from clay, Diana views herself as an abomination, and that internal battle between man and monster has been prevalent since this series’ very first issue.
Diana’s first words in the New 52 are spoken when she has her hands around the neck of Zola, the pregnant woman whose safety becomes Diana’s responsibility. Zola says, “Monsters, they were gonna kill me… are you?” To which Diana responds, “No, I’m not.” Gods and monsters want Zola and her child dead, and while Wonder Woman tries to separate herself from her beastly relatives, she’ll always be connected to them by blood. Over the course of the past 12 issues, Diana has shown herself to be more like her family than she’d probably like to believe, playing by their dirty rules in order to get what she wants. But no matter how much power Diana gains—and at the end of #12, she’s stronger than ever—she will always have the moral foundation that was built on Paradise Island.
Standing above the minotaur with her sword in hand, Diana makes the decision that will guide the rest of her life. Unable to bring the blade down on the helpless creature, Diana faces the rage of her teacher, who screams: “Revenge is not an option to leave a foe! Thou wishes to be a true warrior? A true warrior shows no mercy!” To which Diana reminds Ares of their first battle with real swords, and the mercy he showed her by not delivering a killing blow. His hypocrisy revealed, Ares only grows angrier, declaring Diana his greatest failure and cursing her to forever walk her path alone. Yet while she loses a teacher, she gains the respect of the minotaur, and she knows that what she’s done is right. The issue ends with her emerging from the labyrinth with a question: “Can my mercy be a tribute for my mother?” In that moment, Diana achieves clarity, seeing for the first time that compassion can be just as effective as aggression. The combination of the two is what makes her such a captivating hero, with both facets of her personality battling for control.
Azzarello and Chiang have toyed with the melding of Silver Age and contemporary comic-book storytelling techniques in Doctor 13: Architecture And Morality, but rather than using the retro style as a form of meta-commentary, they use it to instill the issue with a bright, borderline-juvenile tone that contrasts the intensity of the plot. The script is written in heightened language with lots of alliteration (sample quote: “The plucky princess plunges into the icy water, leaving the horrible harpy hapless!”), expertly capturing the verbosity of Silver Age comics. Azzarello’s Diana has been a character who prefers action to words, but the writer takes advantage of the thought bubbles and wordy soliloquies to shed light on Diana’s personal feelings. The script reveals a playful side of Azzarello’s writing that doesn’t always get a chance to shine through the high-stakes drama of the present-day action, and there’s a similar sense of whimsy in Chiang’s artwork.
Cliff Chiang’s striking linework has been a major component of this book’s success, skillfully balancing the energy and grandeur of classic superhero comics with bold graphic details and an eye for design. His character work has been phenomenal, reimagining the Greek gods with distinct looks that physically reflect the ideas that each God represents. Strife is an emaciated goth wrapped in tattered black rags, Eros is a gun-slinging heartthrob who shoots magical bullets rather than arrows, and Ares wears a cream-colored linen suit stained with blood, revealing a god who vacations in places like Darfur and Damascus and dresses like he’s in Cabo. Compare Ares’ appearances over the past year to his more traditional look in #0: Here, he’s clad in black leather with a horned helmet and full of red-bearded vigor, and its clear that he’s considerably changed since he trained Diana. He now has the gray beard and somber ambivalence of someone who has seen too many wars and knows they all end the same way.
Diana’s past look may not be as drastically different as that of Ares, but her visual depiction shows how the character has grown in the years that pass from #0 to #1. Chiang has been praised for his imposing interpretation of the title character, but #0 shows us a budding Diana who is much more insecure and vulnerable than her adult self. She’s very much a Wonder Girl, although she’s never referred to as such, and her youth makes her outbursts of aggression even more effective. However, a temper tantrum isn’t the same as combat, and when Diana is engaged in battle, she begins her transformation into the powerful woman she’ll become. This #0 issue shows how Diana’s past decisions inform the character shown in the present, and by taking inspiration from Wonder Woman’s Silver Age stories, Azzarello and Chiang show how the character’s publication history continues to influence their title, even if those classic adventures are no longer in continuity.