Bart Simpson, Itchy & Scratchy Land
Patrick: It’s a good thing all of our action heroes have a team of writers working quietly behind them, because audiences hold this irrational expectation that heroic actions be punctuated by hilarious, insightful, precise quips. This is a trend that I’ve come to hate, largely because those pure little micro-tweets are so seldom earned. How do you put a character through the paces so thoroughly that acerbic wit feels natural tumbling out of their victorious mouths? They’re not poets or comedians or scholars — they’re warriors, but somehow they know to belch out a characteristically perfect “Yippy-kai-yay, motherfucker” or a “Welcome to Earth” or even a “get away from her, you bitch!” Thing is: those three examples all work because we’re there with Bruce Willis, Will Smith and Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just about having the dry cool wit, but waiting until the audience and the character need the release of such a quip, instead of handing them out willy-nilly. As Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang narrow in on their epic Wonder Woman conclusion, they’re cashing in on all those cheesy action movie beats. And they’ve earned every damn second — the result is unadulterated climax, satisfying on just about every level.
The issue itself is little more than an extended fight sequence which tracks the whereabouts and goings-on of every surviving character from the Wonder Woman cast (plus one non-surviving cast member). It’s a real chickens-coming-home-to-roost scenario as long-absent characters like Milan and Hephaestus (with Eros in tow) land meaningful blows for the good guys. Milan gets to double dip — using both of his previously established powers to help turn the tide in the battle as he locates Zola and swarms The First Born with some angry flies. Not to be outdone, Hephaestus…well, I’ll let Chiang explain what Hephy brings to the fight.
That’s some amazingly insane escalation: steampunk elephant-mechs with morning stars for trunks and fucking gatling guns for tusks! They’re so spectacular, that they’re almost a cheat, narratively speaking. It’s actually sort of remarkable how many characters get these show-stopping moments in this issue: Hera transmuting Hyena-men into crystal and then shattering them with golden ax, Strife delivering Wonder Woman to the battle field, even Hippolyta’s defiant javelin toss. It’s like every single page has a cheer-worthy moment. That’s no small task, because it has necessitated the 35 issues that came before this one to make every one of those moments matter. Wonder Woman herself doesn’t make much of a splash in this issue (more on that in a second), instead, the heroics are reserved for the ancillary cast which mostly only exist in the shining oasis that is Azzarello’s undisturbed corner of the New 52. As much as I’m going to miss this creative team (and I’m facing a bit of a comic crisis at the thought of their departure), I will miss the hell out of these characters. Every one of Diana’s allies is more clearly defined than many of heroes anchoring DC’s line-up at the moment.
My favorite scene in the issue is Diana’s conversation with War, partially because it’s the sole quiet beat in an otherwise raucous issue. (I imagine this is one of the last times we’ll be able to make weird biographical assumptions about this book based on Ares’ appearance being so similar to Azzarello’s, so I’m gonna really go for it.) Their exchange is brief but meaningful. Here’s the whole thing:
In a three-year bid to define Wonder Woman for modern audiences, Azzarello has never treated the character’s history with any undue reverence. If you look around at some of the other successful reboots of the New 52, many held their origins in high esteem. Consider the strengths of early Batgirl or Batman or Swamp Thing or Green Lantern. Their successes are indebted to a sort of universally accepted “truth” — a canon that already knows what that character is about. But what the hell is Wonder Woman about anyway? Feminism? Love? Equality? Just being a bad-ass warrior princess? This series enthusiastically answers the question by slowly unspooling nuance over the course of three years. I absolutely love this moment in the end, where Azzarello appears to reach out to Wonder Woman, as if to ask her to come away and be this perfect version of the character with him forever. This is a creator letting go of his creation, both literally and within the world of the book — whatever comes next for Wonder Woman and for Wonder Woman is beyond his control because the character has a life of her own.
Drew! Drew! Drew! I had intended to bring up more of those action-movie quips, but it’s amazing how well that idea applies to spectacle of any kind. At this point in my reading, I’m ready to see an army of Elephant Robots and Frog-Poseidon emerging from a lake of blood, just like I’m primed for the weirdest one-liner I’ve ever read:
Drew: Hahaha. I think it means he’s just finding the overlap between action hero one-liners and weirdly specific (and often charmingly violent) Wesley Willis non sequiturs. That clear nod to the character’s inspiration demonstrates just how appropriate that inspiration was — while everyone else is demonstrating their badassery with snappy quips, Milan flexes by just being Milan. He gets to be super heroic here, rescuing Orion and Artemis and ultimately delivering A4 to patch up Diana, elevating Wesley Willis to the realm of bona fide super hero, which I think he would have gotten a kick out of.
Speaking of characters with obvious real-world inspirations, I think your reading of Ares’ final appearance here is spot on — it would be selfish of Azzarello to take Diana with him, no matter how badly he might want to — but I think Azz is also commenting on the value of “truth” in art. All of Ares’ talk about nuance, interpretation, and illusion reads like a manifesto on the relationship between artist and audience, and where meaning happens. That Ares has lost interest in the clunky, fixed world of truth in favor of the more nuanced world of what I can only call fiction seems significant. Actually, that he eschews “truth” for interpretation feels like the rallying cry of Retcon Punch — Patrick and I have long asserted that the audience’s interpretation is all that matters when discussing the meaning of a work of art. In this case, “truth” would be authorial intent, a golden apple that far too many comics fans seem fixated upon. The beauty of this reading is that it straight up doesn’t matter if it’s what Azzarello intended; my reaction to the notion that the reading is all that matters is all that matters — it’s a funny little cycle.
It’s kind of a freeing thing, actually — with writing as dense and interconnected as Wonder Woman, it’s easy to fret that we’re missing something, but this issue reads as a comforting assurance that it’s our interpretation that matters. I know that can be enervating for some — if the writer can’t bother to put meaning in it (or is at least going to be coy about that meaning), what’s the point? — but I actually find it energizing. I wouldn’t care to dig deep for some fixed meaning, but a more nuanced, subtle meaning that can change with each new reading? That sounds like a much more rewarding experience (and frankly, one I’m excited to begin as soon as possible).
But getting back to Patrick’s reading of that scene: I think the most heartbreaking thing is that Diana averts the peace of death by landing directly in Strife’s path. You could ask for no more accurate (or cynical) portrait of the Superheroe’s lot in life than seeing Strife’s bottomless thirst for misery force them to continue the fight. It’s an interesting character beat for Strife — she helps Diana not because she wants to see her succeed, but because she wants to see her suffer — but it also paints us as similarly despicable misery-fiends. Granted, we actually want Diana to win, but maybe our desire to see her fight another day is at least a little selfish.
Hey, for all of my talk about ignoring intent, I can’t help but pick up on an allusion that Azz makes twice in this issue. I’m referring to Diana’s multiple mentions of holding the center, which reminds me immensely of William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” — you know, the part about things falling apart and the center not holding? The parallels between the apocalyptic subject matter of that poem and this issue are obvious, but I’m impressed at how easily Chiang was able to tweak is typically crystal-clear layouts to simulate that chaos. In brief, it’s because he’s able to blend the transitions so thoroughly. This series has always featured clever cross-cuts (an Azzarello favorite), but here, Chiang offsets them from the page turns, and when possible, keeps the former scene in the shot even as the focus shifts to another group of characters, emphasizing their relation to one another. He manages this beautifully as Strife and Diana watch the battle from Hades, but my favorite moment has to be this one, as he cuts from Cassandra’s story to Hippolyta’s:
It’s some very smart directing that takes full advantage of the page — it’s basically perfect. Of course, a relatively high panel count also helps create that sense of chaos. Chiang has always averaged more panels per page than most of his counterparts at DC, but this issue is pretty consistent with 6 and 7 panel pages (though that sequence with Ares actually features several more). That all works to make the final splash page reveal of Poseidon incredibly impactful — he’s reserved that impact (and that scale) for when it really counts.
Man, I’m really going to miss this creative team. This has been my favorite series on the shelves for years and they still manage to make each issue better than the last. I’m going to be reading (and thinking and talking about) this series for a LONG time after the final issue lands. You know, unless Diana defeats the First Born by taking a picture of him. He doesn’t really work with any cheese puns.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?