Today, Mark and Spencer are discussing Wonder Woman 21, originally released April 26th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Mark: Wonder Woman 21 is a showcase for the whole of Wonder Woman — from her physical strength to her compassion for those in need — that continues Greg Rucka, Liam Sharp, and company’s holistic rehabilitation of the character. And after Diana has taken the backseat in the past few even-numbered issues, it feels appropriate to have her front-and-center as the narrative loop begins to close.
There are stand-out moments throughout Wonder Woman 21, from the look on Diana’s face after deflecting Maru’s sniper bullet to Sharp’s awesomely rendered reveal of Ares’ prison, but the highlight of the issue comes towards the end, as Diana extends her hand to Veronica Cale and offers assistance. Cale is a woman who has worked against Wonder Woman for years, hurting not just Diana, but her best friend as well. That, despite all of this, Wonder Woman is still willing to see Cale as an ally rather than an enemy perfectly encapsulates who Wonder Woman is.
And while we’ve seen many of these beats from Rucka and company in previous issues, what I used to consider wheel spinning I now more charitably view as Rucka laying down a statement of intent. “This is what a Wonder Woman comic looks like,” he promises, and such a template is necessary for the character’s long-term health. Wonder Woman has been generally rudderless for long enough that a template for, shall we say, less experienced writers to follow in their own iterations of the character in the future is a welcome development. It’s something Scott Snyder has been able to instill during his many years as the captain of Batman titles, but with Rucka’s run on Wonder Woman down to only a few remaining weeks, he has much less time to develop the same guidelines for whoever follows him.
It’s a gambit that I hope pays off. I’ve discussed in the past how Rucka has positioned Diana Prince as an avatar for womankind and used this run as an opportunity to explore the treatment of women in our systemically misogynistic culture, so I won’t repeat the argument here, but it’s important to note that Rucka never fetishises Wonder Woman as the ideal or perfect woman. Diana Prince is a literal god — a perfect, unachievable state of being. She’s not the model for what a woman should be but rather for what we should all strive to be; courageous, compassionate, strong, selfless, enduring in the face of crisis and hardship.
The distinction between paragon and avatar in Rucka’s interpretation of the character is vital because Rucka is, after all, not a woman, and can’t speak from any sort of direct experience. That doesn’t diminish the achievement of this Wonder Woman run, but it does highlight that we’re long overdue for a capital “F” Feminist Wonder Woman written by a woman.
But such a development seems destined to remain nothing more than a long-term dream, of course, given that feminism is considered commercially toxic to the large entertainment corporations to the point that almost everyone involved with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, of all things, goes out of their way to avoid invoking the f-word seemingly out of fear of alienating the “All Lives Matter” crowd. Factor in that DC has a history of pinballing between interpretations of their iconic female heroes — following up thoughtful entries with arcs willing to lean into the characters’ more pin-up qualities, before course correcting again — and the future of Wonder Woman feels as uncertain as always. But why focus on the cloudy future when the present gives us so much to enjoy?
What’d you think, Spencer?
Spencer: I gotta echo your fears about whoever succeeds Rucka, Mark, given DC’s track record with Wonder Woman creative turnovers, but I’m not ready to give those fears too much energy yet — analyzing the great stuff Rucka and his creative partners are actually doing right now is much more pressing, and far more interesting to me.
That said, I think you’re on the right track when you describe this run as a template for how Wonder Woman should be written. I don’t know whether that’s intentional on the creative team’s behalf — I’m sure they’re primarily concerned with creating compelling stories that stay true to Diana and her supporting cast, and “Rebirth’s” back-to-basics approach essentially calls for all these titles to be, in a sense, a template for the platonic idea of each character — but it certainly works out that way. In that sense, I think the most important thing this series has done — and which Wonder Woman 21 continues to do — is build up Diana’s supporting cast and villains.
There’s been some murmuring here and there about Diana being pushed out of her own book by her supporting cast; there’s some validity to those criticisms, but also some necessity to it. Supporting characters have been the biggest victims of Wonder Woman‘s yo-yo creative teams throughout her history — each new creative throws out what came before and starts over with their own supporting players — so I think it’s important that Rucka and Sharp not only decided to bring back Diana’s classic supporting cast, but to build them up into characters that can hold their own, who future creative teams will hopefully want to include in their runs.
At this point Veronica Cale is practically a co-protagonist, but Rucka and Sharp have lavished just as much attention on Barbara Minerva. She’s not just a bad guy, but a fallen hero, someone misled and possibly betrayed, a character with a past and history that makes her interactions with Diana so much richer. Her taunt to Diana in the first panel burns because we saw Barbara teach Diana English and how exciting it was for them both. And the callback to Barbara’s friendship (possibly more?) with Etta reinforces the supporting cast’s bonds, not just with Diana, but with each other as well — which, again, is essential to building them into characters that both readers and future creative teams will want to keep reading about.
Fortunately, Diana’s just as compelling in this issue. Mark already pointed out her strongest moment — reaching out to Veronica Cale with compassion — but I love the contrast Rucka and Sharp create between that moment and her fight with Poison at the story’s outset.
Diana doesn’t tolerate fools. She’ll always reach out to an opponent with an open hand first, but when pushed, she’ll shrug off bullet wounds and take out her enemies with ruthless efficiency. The frightening sight of Wonder Woman in battle makes her compassion all the more powerful — she doesn’t reach out to enemies because of opportunism, or because she has to, but because she genuinely cares about everyone. Rucka and Sharp strike a perfect balance with their Wonder Woman — she’s a peerless warrior, but does not lust for battle, and always pursues peace instead. Like I said: perfect.
Artist Liam Sharp can take much of the credit for Diana’s badassery — under his pen Wonder Woman is powerful and unflappable, her appearance as remarkable as her feats. I also adore Sharp’s panel and layout choices — the smaller panels with thick black borders (almost resembling frames of film) are incredibly versatile, their size not only allowing Sharp to cram quite a bit into a page (he’s channeling George Perez with the reaction shots to the dogs running into the tree) but to arrange them into almost any configuration he pleases. My favorite example comes early in the issue.
Here Sharp uses his layouts to emphasize Diana. Every time she shares a panel with another character she’s trapped within its borders, but as soon as she’s alone in a panel it loses its border altogether, as if it simply can’t contain her — even when she’s in the sights of a monstrous sniper. It all leads to that final panel, where she stands out as the page’s primary figure, again emphasizing Diana’s power, skill, and agency. This effect continues onto the next page.
Again, Diana continues to elude the constraints of the panel borders, but once she snatches up Poison she takes her with her — she doesn’t just lift her into the air, she pulls her right out of the panel and into the gutter! Thanks to the angle of the “camera,” in the second page’s second panel Diana then appears to be punching Poison back into the panels, and thus, the world she actually understands. That’s how disorienting it is to be attacked by Wonder Woman — or, at least, by Sharp and Rucka’s imposing take on her.
Mark already mentioned Sharp’s other bravura moment — the reveal of the “tree” and Ares’ prison within — but I’m still at a loss as to what the tree could possibly be. Ares is imprisoned in it, but the tree existed before Diana defeated Ares, first encountering her own Themyscara before she even left for Man’s World. Is Ares not a mastermind, but just another victim of whatever force has been manipulating Diana’s life? Or, perhaps more shockingly, are even the moments we’ve seen play out throughout Rucka’s run (such as Ares’ defeat) not entirely true? Should we be trusting anything we’ve seen?
It’s a testament to Rucka and Sharp’s skill that their run on Wonder Woman is so successful despite a story that’s never been all that clear. Their masterful character work more than makes up for it, and I can’t imagine that changing in the time they have left with this book.
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