Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Wonder Woman: Earth One. Written by Grant Morrison (Klaus, The Multiversity) with art by Yanick Paquette (Swamp Thing, Batman) and colors by Nathan Fairbairn (Nameless, All-New Wolverine), this original graphic novel revisits the ideas of submission and domination that spawned Wonder Woman’s creation to offer a riveting take on the heroine. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Wonder Woman has experienced a major pop-culture resurgence following her big screen debut in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, making this the perfect time for DC Comics to release a Wonder Woman project that delves deep into the ideas that form the foundation of her character. The new graphic novel Wonder Woman: Earth One reunites writer Grant Morrison, artist Yanick Paquette, and colorist Nathan Fairbairn to reimagine the heroine by reinforcing the philosophy of her creator, William Moulton Marston, who used Wonder Woman to challenge the patriarchy by endorsing the value of peaceful submission to a morally superior feminine authority.
Submission and domination are the key themes of the graphic novel, which features a powerful image of Wonder Woman in chains on the cover and begins with a splash page revealing Amazon Queen Hippolyta enslaved by the hyper-masculine Hercules. These two images make bold statements from the very start, and immediately emphasize how important Paquette and Fairbairn are in realizing the full impact of Morrison’s ideas. The sketchbook in the back of the book shows Paquette’s different ideas for the cover image, spotlighting how the changes in Diana’s posture and facial expression dramatically change the tone of the image. The final image is one of strength, but Diana isn’t fighting against her chains. She’s not happy, but she’s calm and confident, holding her head up and taking a stance that wears the chains without being overly restricted by them. The image fully evokes the concept of peaceful submission that drives the story, further emphasized by Fairbairn’s smooth, vibrant coloring.
Compare that cover to the splash of Hippolyta in chains, an image of violent submission intensified by dramatic characterizations and high-contrast coloring. The aggressive body language and facial expressions are maintained throughout the entire opening sequence, which builds to the fall of Hercules when Hippolyta strangles him with the chains that bind her before releasing her other captured Amazon sisters. This main action is broken up by images inspired by ancient Greek pottery art, accentuating the mythical quality of this event 3,000 years in the past, while adding visual tension by interrupting the dominant blue palette with the hot oranges and reds of the clay pottery Paquette is mimicking.
These visual elements define the experience of the Amazons before they left behind the world of man. When the story jumps forward three millennia to reveal the Paradise Island of Amazonia, the art team takes a completely different approach to create a lush, inviting environment. The two-page splash introducing the setting establishes a liberating atmosphere with an expansive shot of the city, with a distinct lack of phallic architecture. Instead, the design sensibility of Paradise Island is rooted in feminine imagery, with breastlike domes and strong yonic elements in the costumes, props, and machinery. (The invisible Swan Plane is an especially strong example, as its wings expand outward to evoke female genitalia.)
The visual splendor of these first pages in Paradise Island creates an immersive setting, but that sense of freedom is diminished when Hippolyta’s daughter Diana finally enters the story, bound in chains. The creative team immediately establishes that Amazonia is a restrictive environment for Diana, and as she’s put on trial for leaving her home to see the world of man, the story flashes back to detail the events that led to Diana’s brash, defiant actions. Over the course of the book, Morrison and his art team do phenomenal work bringing back classic Wonder Woman characters like Amazon scientist Althea and warrior Mala. They offer a progressive view of Amazon society that embraces sexuality, best exemplified by the erotic revelry that characterizes the Festival Of Diana.
Morrison and Paquette explored the fetishization of female superheroes in their Seven Soldiers: The Bulleteer miniseries, and Wonder Woman: Earth One continues that exploration via the most fetishized superheroine of them all. Bondage is at the core of Wonder Woman, and Morrison is fixated on finding out why that is and what the act of bondage reveals about the character and how she views the world. It ultimately comes down to the idea of peaceful submission as an alternative to the violent domination that drives men to hurt others; submission isn’t an act of weakness, but an act of strength that bonds people together if the submission is rooted in love.
That’s an Amazonian viewpoint, though, and an outsider like Steve Trevor has difficulty understanding this idea. When Steve’s airplane crashes on the coast of Paradise Island, Diana finally gains an excuse to leave her confining home, and she breaks the rules of her people to seek medical treatment for Steve in man’s world. (Steve’s introduction features a phenomenal blend of masculine and feminine imagery; Steve’s emergence from the ocean evokes Botticelli’s “The Birth Of Venus,” and there’s a giant phallic outline in the middle of the two-page sequence.)
Making Steve Trevor a black man introduces a new conflict when Diana asks him to put on a studded leather collar and kneel to her. While Morrison doesn’t delve too deeply into the racial issues, he does use Steve’s race as a way of bringing him closer to Diana and the rest of the Amazons. Steve knows what it’s like to have his ancestors enslaved and his culture poisoned by rich men and those who do their dirty work, and it’s refreshing to see Steve and Diana’s relationship built on mutual understanding and respect rather than lust.
The other main non-Amazon figure in Diana’s life is Beth Candy (a new interpretation of Etta Candy based on The Gossip’s Beth Ditto), who plays an essential role in Morrison’s narrative as the main woman who speaks out against the Amazons’ ideals and prejudices, drawing attention to the flaws in Amazonian thought. Diana and the other Amazons look at Beth’s plus-sized body as a deformity created by the corrupting influence of man’s world, but Beth takes pride in her appearance and refuses to let her worth be diminished by the “class bitches” of the Amazons. Unfortunately, Morrison stumbles with Beth’s introduction into the story, which features a completely unnecessary comment about Beth eating all the food for Beta Lambda sorority’s Feed The Hungry mixer. Beth commands respect throughout Morrison’s story, which makes it even sadder that he starts by disrespecting her with a tasteless, unfunny joke.
Beth’s treatment improves dramatically from that point, and her friendship with Diana does a lot to ground the story when it moves away from Amazonia. Beth is the person who comments on the kinky allure of “Paradise Island of science fiction lesbians with a side of bondage,” and her overt bisexuality introduces a sexual undercurrent to her relationship with Diana. That provides important context for the scene in which Beth and her pseudo-sorority Holliday girls give Diana a makeover that ends with her in makeup, high heels, and a skimpy majorette uniform, a sort of hazing that allows Beth to transform Diana into a more sexualized version of herself.
There are so many layers to Morrison’s story and the psychology of his characters, and that complexity is a huge part of the allure of Wonder Woman: Earth One, revealing the depth of William Moulton Marston’s radically feminist concept for the character. Marston believed that women were morally superior to men, and that idea is carried over to Morrison’s story, which wisely chooses to show the flaws in that superiority. These imperfections make for a more compelling narrative, offering a new take on Wonder Woman that offers myriad storytelling opportunities for future graphic novels (Morrison is already working on the second one).
Marvel and DC have been reluctant to fully commit to the original graphic-novel format, but books like Wonder Woman: Earth One show the value of putting out a complete story in an attractive package. The OGN format allows the creative team to take its time to create the best version of the comic they have in mind, and there’s incredible ambition on display in the writing and artwork for this title. In the case of the Earth One line specifically, creators are given the freedom to offer their distinct interpretation of DC’s most popular heroes. While the quality of those interpretations has varied, it’s still nice to see creators receive the opportunity to work with these characters on extended stories without continuity restrictions. By putting Diana back in chains and exploring what those chains mean, Morrison, Paquette, and Fairbairn have delivered a fascinating update of the character, bringing a true sense of wonder to her story.