Spencer: Patrick and I recently lamented a certain style of comic, the kind that tries to recap an entire lifetime with voiceover, practically becoming an illustrated Wikipedia article in the process. It seems as if the entire purpose of these comics is simply to relay information without attempting to further characterization or plot, and the longer I read comics the more this kind of story bothers me. This particular style seems to pop up most often when retelling origin stories (just check out our Zero Month coverage for proof), and that made me particularly cautious about picking up Secret Origins 6. Each of the three stories presented in this issue tackles the business of telling an origin story slightly differently, yet two of them still stick pretty close to this format. I suppose that raises the question of who this title is actually for: newbies who may need an illustrated Wikipedia article, or long-time readers who might expect a little more from their stories?
I’m going to kick off our discussion by addressing the issue’s final tale, Cullen Bunn and Igor Lima’s origin of Sinestro. This story perfectly exemplifies what I was talking about above; Bunn takes us from Sinestro’s childhood up to the events of his current title in surprising detail, but it leaves little room for any sort of plot to unfold. The saving grace of this segment is Bunn’s choice to have Sinestro narrate the story via his internal monologue, which at least grants us insight into his motivations and thought processes that an omniscient narrator might not.
For example, Sinestro’s interpretation of the destruction of Korugar is far from accurate, and very skewed by his personal grudges (although, admittedly, it would take first-hand knowledge of the Wrath of the First Lantern storyline to appreciate this); this helps us better understand his inflated sense of superiority. Likewise, I found young Sinestro’s obsession with Legos (or, I guess, Space Legos? Spegos?) to be a clever way to show how, even from a young age, he craved control and order and saw society as his playthings. This story doesn’t teach me anything new about Sinestro, but it is an effective peek into his mindset.
J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Stokes’ Deadman origin is more ambitious, but inevitably more cluttered, as they try to fit in a detailed history of Deadman alongside an actual story as well. The thrust of the story is Deadman finally finding the peace he needs to forgive his (terrible) parents, and I do love the idea that only forgiveness could bring Boston peace. Besides his new attitude, though, little has changed for Deadman; he’s no longer under Rama’s thumb, but he’s still essentially doing the same exact thing he was before, and it does lessen the sense that Boston’s starting a new chapter in his life that DeMatteis seems to be trying to establish.
While both stories have their strong points, I don’t feel like I got much new out of them, but I’m thinking that might not be the point. These stories may not be targeted at me — in fact, Secret Origins may not be targeted at me at all. I already know these stories, but for someone new to comics, new to Sinestro or Deadman, I think both tales would serve as informative introductions to the characters, even bringing the reader up-to-date with both characters’ current titles (although, strangely enough, the issue doesn’t advertise Sinestro or Justice League Dark). If that’s the point of this book, then it deserves more credit than I initially gave it.
Unsurprisingly, though, Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman origin does its own thing entirely, making me reconsider what I just said about the target audience — and don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing, as this is easily my favorite story of the three. Instead of trying to tell Diana’s entire life story, Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, and artist Gorak Sudzuka wisely stick to the days leading up to Diana’s departure from Themyscara (in fact, the name “Wonder Woman” never even appears in the story outside its title). This focus gives the story room to breathe, giving Azzarello and Chiang a chance to craft some surprisingly effective characterization for Hippolyta and Aleka; they’re assisted in this by Sudzuka, all three of whom take advantage of their meager page-count to pack in as much information as possible without ever making it feel expository.
Again, it all comes down to focus: Azzarello and Chiang choose to focus on Diana’s feelings of alienation, which not only eventually lead to her leaving Themyscara with Steve Trevor, but also provide the perfect springboard to explore Diana’s past, since it’s the (supposed) circumstances of her birth that contribute to her feeling different. It’s a much more natural and character-based way to tell an origin instead of focusing on obligatory exposition, and it benefits from the room the creative team has to show events instead of simply tell them. It also helps that they seem to be having fun with this story; Azzarello takes up the same retro, slightly-tongue-in-cheek, awesomely alliterative style he used back in the (similarly themed) Zero Issue, and it’s just as charming now as it was then. I realize that Deadman and Sinestro are both much darker characters, but those stories really could’ve benefited from the sense of fun found in Diana’s origin.
If the purpose of Secret Origins is to provide informative introductions to these characters, then I don’t know if Diana’s tale is as effective as the other two, but it’s certainly the most enjoyable and well-told of the three stories, and that’s what I’m going to focus on. I can’t speak for a new reader, but I know I’d rather read a story like Azzarello’s, that captures the spirit of the title, than one obsessed with chronicling every event of a character’s history. If the other two origins are what this title is, then maybe Diana’s origin is what this title should be.
Drew, what’s your take? Did Secret Origins meet, fail, or exceed your expectations, whatever they may have been? As a more up-to-date reader of Azzarello’s Wonder Woman than I, did you catch any important beats or allusions I may have missed? Has Aleka’s crush on Diana always been this obvious?
Drew: Far from obvious, I’d say this is the first hint we’ve gotten that Diana and Aleka were ever anything other than “the bitterest of rivals”, as Diana puts it. That Aleka’s resentment towards Diana comes from such a personal place is revelatory — indeed, this could very well serve as the “Secret Origin of Aleka” — but Diana quickly steals the show with her charmingly teenage attitude. Spencer, I know what you’re thinking — “how could Drew, of all people, use the words ‘charming’ and ‘teenage’ in the same sentence?” — but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t won over by Diana’s “you don’t get it, mom” inner monologue.
Of course, a lot of the charm comes from the throwback quality of the art. The house style on Wonder Woman has always featured bold lines and cartoonier character designs, but Sudzuka takes it a step further, turning in work with such deliberate line weights and classical posing that makes all that alliteration feel right at home. A lot of that is also credit to colorist Matt Wilson, whose palette feels more like the classic 63-color palette that would have been in use when Wonder Woman was created. Heck, aside from the color holds (a hallmark of Wilson’s work on this series) and the occasional gradient (check out the lighting effect thrown by the torch in the panel above), you could swear this was ripped right out of a golden age issue.
To the story’s benefit, Azzarello and Chiang carry over that golden age sensibility to the narrative structure. While the other features in this issue seem content to serve as a superficial survey of their characters’ histories, Azzarello and Chiang couch their portion in real emotional stakes. It’s easy to forget that “Secret Origins” should do anything other than go over a character’s origin point-by-point, but Azzarello and Chiang are reaching back to a history at least as old as superheroes themselves. Yes, Action Comics 1 tells the tale of Superman’s distant origins, but it also leaves space for Superman to exonerate an innocent woman, prevent a murder, rescue Lois, and apprehend a war-monger. In a similar vein, Detective Comics 33 is famous as the first telling of the origin story — an origin that hasn’t changed much since then — but that’s just a two-page spread preceding a story about Batman warring against “the Dirigible of Doom”. The point is: origin stories don’t have to JUST be origin stories. The Wonder Woman story here succeeds because it feels like it has a purpose besides catching us up to where a character is today.
Spencer, I think your question of the purpose of these issues is key. An already dedicated fan doesn’t need a blow-by-blow of the character’s past, and a new fan would probably appreciate something more entertaining than an illustrated history lesson. Heck, I’ve read stories featuring both Deadman and Sinestro — stories I enjoyed — but was utterly daunted by their origins as presented here. If these aren’t for dedicated fans, casual fans, or new fans, the only audience left are the completists — those who have decided they’re going to read this issue no matter how unpleasant it is, which strikes me as DC setting their sights woefully low.
In any case, Spencer and I are clearly not the intended audience for those two features. And I suppose that’s how it should be: this is the first issue of this series either of us have picked up — targeting us would be a mistake. The unfortunate part is that three stories like the Wonder Woman feature might have actually made me come back. Instead, I’m left to assume that this was the rare exception to the norm for this series.
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?