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Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday lassoes her best stories in years

Also reviewed: Frontier, Vigilante: Southland, and Jacob Bladders And The State Of The Art

Wonder Woman 75th Anniversary Special (Image: DC Comics)
Wonder Woman 75th Anniversary Special (Image: DC Comics)

2016 is the year DC Comics remembered that it owns the world’s most popular female superhero. There has been a significant upgrade in Wonder Woman comics thanks to the character’s big-screen debut in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and DC has adjusted its approach to Diana now that she’s back in the pop culture spotlight. The year started with Meredith and David Finch continuing their severely underwhelming Wonder Woman run, but the tides of change had started to rise with Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon’s remarkable The Legend Of Wonder Woman digital-first miniseries. Then came Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s fascinating Wonder Woman: Earth One graphic novel, offering a modernized take on William Moulton Marston’s original vision for the heroine. The return of Greg Rucka on the new Wonder Woman series for Rebirth gets the book back on course with compelling stories and striking artwork from Liam Sharp, Nicola Scott, and Bilquis Evely.

October was an especially big month for Wonder Woman: Outside of comics, she made headlines by being appointed as an honorary U.N. ambassador for “the empowerment of women and girls,” and while that has no bearing on the quality of her comics, the books have been particularly inspired recently. Rucka and his art team continue to do excellent work on the main series with major developments for Barbara “The Cheetah” Minerva and Diana’s relationship with Steve Trevor, and two new titles showcase the versatility of the Wonder Woman concept and the depth of her character: Wonder Woman 75th Anniversary Special and Wonder Woman: The True Amazon (DC Comics).

Wonder Woman: 75th Anniversary Special features short stories, pin-ups, rarely seen pencil studies by former Wonder Woman cover artist Brian Bolland, and an interview with Wonder Woman conducted by Lois Lane and “transcribed” by Greg Rucka. A wide range of creators with different levels of Wonder Woman experience contributed to the book, and each offers a distinct take while still showcasing the values of compassion, understanding, and strength that is consistent across nearly all versions. Rafael Scavone and Rafael Albuquerque give a rousing look at Wonder Woman fighting Nazis in occupied France, while Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl adopt a quieter approach to Diana taking out a poacher.

Mairghread Scott and Riley Rossmo’s story explores Wonder Woman’s conflicting emotions when she engages in violence, and it’s one of the multiple stories that delve into her relationship to the world around her. Fabio Moon, Gail Simone, and Colleen Doran portray Diana as an inspirational figure in their respective stories, showcasing why her image has become tied to female empowerment in the decades since her creation. Even with all this talent, the most exciting thing about this one-shot is the return of De Liz and Dillon’s interpretation of Diana, teasing the upcoming new Legend Of Wonder Woman miniseries with a story that shows that this creative team still has many more heartfelt legends to tell.

The anniversary special includes an excerpt from Jill Thompson’s Wonder Woman: The True Amazon, a new graphic novel that offers a dramatically different take on Diana’s journey to becoming Wonder Woman. In a year that has already had three different Wonder Woman origin stories, this new book may sound like overkill, but The True Amazon is a genuinely different take on Diana’s early years. It’s also the most visually breathtaking Wonder Woman title DC has released in recent memory, with lushly painted watercolor art that gives the book a dreamy quality that accentuates the story’s fairy tale elements.

Thompson’s version of Diana is extremely spoiled thanks to her unique status as a child gifted to the Amazons by the gods, and that privileged treatment makes her arrogant and bratty. Thompson takes a risk in highlighting the unlikable aspects of her lead’s personality, but these flaws make Diana feel like a real adolescent while giving her path to heroism a strong emotional foundation. The “true Amazon” of this book’s subtitle isn’t Diana, but the stable worker Alethea, who is the only Amazon that doesn’t dote over Diana. She’s unimpressed by Diana’s triumphs and the talents bestowed upon her by the gods, and Alethea’s disinterest casts judgment that Diana isn’t used to experiencing.

Greg Rucka recently made news by confirming his interpretation that Wonder Woman is bisexual, and it’s hard not to see strong queer subtext in Diana’s infatuation with Alethea and her all-consuming need to be adored by her fellow Amazonians. It doesn’t even feel like subtext by the end of the book, and even though the women never explicitly state that they have romantic feelings for each other, their behavior implies something more than platonic friendship. This is a new golden age for Wonder Woman comics, and DC Comics has elevated the hero by embracing distinct perspectives of her and letting creators show what she means to them on a personal level. [Oliver Sava]

Over the last few years, Roman Muradov has proven himself to be one of the most audacious and challenging cartoonists of his generation. Tracing his growth through works like his Yellow Zine series, (In A Sense) Lost And Found, and The End Of A Fence, his style has evolved, growing sharper and more opaque in equal measure. His latest, Jacob Bladders And The State Of The Art (Uncivilized Books), continues this evolution, and it functions as the apotheosis of his current style.

The novella tells the story of Jacob Bladders, a freelance illustrator working for a pair of competing New York newspapers in 1947. While rushing to hit his deadline, Bladders is mugged and his work stolen, and through a series of increasingly oblique scenes, Muradov reveals the machinations leading to the mugging as well as its consequences. Drawn in a striking chiaroscuro that juxtaposes off-white and black, Muradov constructs The State Of The Art from thick, curvilinear lines and smears of black with the texture of a silkscreen that’s run low on ink. Its visible brushstrokes, smudged textures, and overlapping bodies, buildings, and spaces put one in mind of a Georges Braque painting, so much so that following the narrative requires effortful observation. Characters, faces, and scenes blur into one another, and The State Of The Art overwhelms the eye. Muradov’s four-panel grid—consistent and clearly defined throughout—often feels teasingly clarified.

But Muradov’s occultation extends beyond the aesthetic; he demonstrates comics’ inextricable interweaving of the visual and the narrative. Brimming with wordplay, tied into knots, The State Of The Art makes a mockery of narrative expectation. Muradov writes as a simultaneous act of beginning and ending, with scenes’ first moments initiating their conclusion. It is an odd rhythm, with the book functioning like a series of maxims and arrows—aphorisms that rush headlong into one another, statements that, while they may cohere at points, are content to stand independently. The effect is dizzying but compelling, challenging but inviting.

The trajectory of Muradov’s style has long been one of resolute opacity. His narratives have always insisted on attentive readings, but in the past, this opacity largely took the form of lyrical wordplay, puns, and linguistic ambiguity. He would flip familiar words and phrases, recontextualize them, and use them to exciting new ends; textually, this book feels of a kind with Muradov’s other work. The penchant for wordplay is evident—from the title down through to a tongue-in-cheek glossary of terms in the back. But The State Of The Art also reflects his current concern with a kind of parallax aesthetic, seemingly clear but just out of grasp. In a panel, a figure may be clear, but read with the kind of gusto the book invites, images quickly blur into one another; speech balloons from one panel appear to be picked up by a different character in another, and curlicue dialogue trails off or is irredeemably smeared by ink. Muradov builds The State Of The Art on non sequitur, elision, and circumlocution. [Shea Hennum]

Youth In Decline’s Frontier has quickly made a name for itself as one of the most interesting anthologies currently running. The premise is simple: each issue features a different artist given a 32-page monograph to fill with whatever kind of story they like. The last few volumes have included career milestone work from burgeoning talents such as Michael DeForge and Eleanor Davis. Steven Universe’s Rebecca Sugar is doing the next issue, so that should sell a few copies. Frontier #13 features Richie Pope, who offers the surreal short story “Fatherson.” Pope may be more familiar as an illustrator than a cartoonist, his work appearing in publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic. Yet “Fatherson” is a capable and unsettling story that lingers long after the last page is turned.

Pope structures the story like a picture book, with single-panel pages accompanied by text. It reads almost as a Little Golden Book, though significantly more distressing. Fathersons are water-activated homunculi who grow to full size in the span of an hour. These creatures have many uses. They can lift weights, play basketball, stroll in the breeze, or smoke menthol cigarettes. A caricature of masculinity—and specifically, black American masculinity—is sliced up and split among a selection of semi-sentient creatures who fall into comfortable niches carved out of gender expectations. They’re simple creatures who apparently want to do one thing, whether playing ball or hanging out at art museums. Every activity performed by the Fatherson creatures represents a role played by adults: athlete, smoker, museum-goer. Pulled out and streamlined, none of these roles is enough to make the Fatherson creatures fully functional. Pope’s story is ultimately melancholy because these artificial fathers grown in bathtubs can never become completely realized beings. They’re stuck in limited roles.

“Some Fathersons are incredibly organized,” the book relates, “and get upset when things aren’t put back where they’re supposed to be.” The Fathersons possess all the negative traits of real fathers, as perceived by children: dictatorial, arbitrary, frightening. “Some Fathersons will just simply be upset,” it continues. “They may never tell you why. Pay attention to their body language and know when it’s best to get out of their way.” The Fathersons are created out of a desire for masculine role models, but the positive aspects of fatherhood can’t be isolated from the dangerous.

“Fathersons” is a unique and unsettling work that foreshadows a strong career for Pope. His panels are excellent compositions, using a garish color palette to flatten the images by rendering bodies and objects as abstract design elements. The Fathersons themselves are drawn in a vaguely pathetic, ominous style, their impassive mustachioed faces betraying no thought, merely the rote performance of duties undertaken out of a sense of obligation. Some Fathersons can’t even manage that: “Some Fathersons run so far they forget where they are. Others run so far they forget who they are.” “Fatherson” is an impressive and affecting work that, while seeming slight, reveals a great deal of nuance on multiple readings. [Tim O’Neil]

Comics have always been political, but 2016 is seeing a boom in books with overt and explicit political viewpoints, particularly when it comes to race and racialized violence. What’s particularly gratifying is seeing the larger, more conservative publishers getting involved even in a small capacity. DC’s relaunch of a Vigilante solo title was a surprise to most fans: The character is a bit of a deep cut and has often been a lawman or -woman, a cop put in an untenable position and forced to take on a secret identity in order to fight crime more effectively than they can at their day job. Vigilante could easily be an outdated trope too stale to bring into the more experimental and exciting work that’s happening at DC right now.

But under the guidance of writer Gary Phillips, Vigilante: Southland #1 (DC) is something both familiar and fresh, just the kind of politically active (and reactive) comic that a lot of fans are looking for. Phillips is a veteran writer of both prose and comics, with creator-owned titles and novels under his belt. In his version, Vigilante isn’t a sheriff on the Mexican border or a Gotham police officer but a citizen from Phillips’ native L.A. fed up with a broken system and the people in power who keep it that way. It shares more than a passing likeness to other titles like Midnighter and Nighthawk, or even the Shaft minis from Dynamite: a man poised on the edge of something epic, furious and righteous at the same time.

Phillips has a much better handle on the “show, don’t tell” part of being a comics writer; he doesn’t crowd the page with dialogue or too much information, letting the story unfold in a natural progression instead of forcing elements and doing big info dumps that might lose readers’ attention. The dialogue in the front third of the book is a little more stilted and stiff than is good for a first issue, but it loosens up and gets a good flow pretty quickly. Artist Elena Casagrande has contributed mostly to TV continuation books like Angel and Doctor Who, but she’s a great fit for Vigilante and does a lot to elevate the characters from sympathetic to engrossing. Her style relies a lot on angles and tight little panels to tell the story, but that keeps things moving at a good clip. Giulia Brusco’s excellent colors are vital in the effort, bathing the first few pages in sherbet-colored sunsets cut with jet black shadows that make L.A. come alive.

The biggest weakness of this first book is the inescapable fact that it relies on the death of the main character Donny’s girlfriend to move forward. It does cast Dorrie as a strong and driven women with her own mysteries and missions, but she dies before the middle of the issue, and there won’t be much of a chance for readers to get to know her at all. Dorrie’s mother will clearly play a role in future issues, but by the end of the issue, it becomes clear that this is a story about Donny and his journey alone, which is a little disappointing. Overall it’s a good read with excellent art and pacing, and with perfect timing to fill the hole where the recently canceled Nighthawk used to be on pull lists. [Caitlin Rosberg]