Thursday, September 21, 2023

REVIEW: Wonder Woman #1 — "Wonder Woman: Outlaw Part 1"

"If you believed all of social media, you'd think the country was run by a secret king or something."

"Wonder Woman: Outlaw Part 1" promises a crafty political thriller with some savory ingredients: a secret society, manipulated chess pieces, sympathetic victims, a shadowy new villain, and our unswerving heroine. The fact that it draws plot points from far less crafty lore — 2007's Amazons Attack! — is unfortunate at best (a blemish surpassed only by the 2005 editorial betrayal in which Diana was turned into a murderer in the death of Maxwell Lord).

And while Lord's murder isn't referenced in this new Dawn of DC canon (yet?), the Amazon attack is ripe in the memory of one Sarge Steel, a resident DC Comics military operative, who was humiliated during those events, and that burn continues to fuel his distrust of all Amazons — and Wonder Woman, in particular.

Steel is the perfect antagonist in Tom King's inaugural Wonder issue. His personal distrust and, indeed, hate toward the Amazons is weaponized to great effect by an unseen narrator who meticulously presents the unfolding story as a flashback. In fact, in the very first panel the narrator reveals that they have already been defeated, presumably at the hands of Diana ("She was but a princess").

But this revelation quickly becomes a footnote against the shocking story setup: Emelie, an Amazon living in the United States on a work visa, gets into an argument one night at a pool hall. She accuses a man of touching her inappropriately. He denies it. The argument escalates into a fight and Emelie loses control. She murders all 19 men in the hall. The women are unharmed. Emelie disappears.

The massacre triggers fear, outrage, and panic. On the news a senator refers to it as a terrorist attack and calls into question Amazon values as "not our values." Rumors of "a secret war on men" abound. Diplomats are recalled from the Amazon Embassy. Soon all Amazons are targeted when a national ban, "The Amazon Safety Act," goes into effect requiring them to leave the country.

Those who do not leave peacefully are rounded up and removed by force via "AXE," the "Amazon Extradition Entity." Some are killed in the process. The narrator tells us that Diana fights against this tide with words. She recruits her super friends to help. But to no avail. Emelie remains missing. Diana tries to find her. But trying to find her means staying in the country, which breaks the law.

Yes, even Wonder Woman, the Superhero, is required to vacate the premises. But she defies. America is her home, too. And apparently she's the only one really looking for Emelie, anyway. So she's not going anywhere. Steel finds her in a cemetery where the pool hall dead are buried. She prays over them. Steel finds this amusing. He confronts her with two dozen soldiers.

This ineptitude betrays his reputation (or perhaps I just haven't read enough of his exploits). At any rate, it doesn't go well for him. This woman who has battled gods wipes the snow with them. But alive. And while predictable, the action is no less exhilarating to see, no less satisfying to read. And she puts Steel in his place. It's perfect. Too perfect. But that's the point. That's the plan. She is an Outlaw.

Our unseen narrator ties the bow on the plan: "America versus Wonder Woman." And on the last page he is revealed. The architect of this travesty is the leader of a cabal known as The Sovereign and they've been brewing under the skin of America long before it was America. Early on he is described as "...the High Emperor of Columbia."

(I immediately thought of the decorative similarities between Wonder Woman and Columbia, the female personification of America before she was supplanted by Lady Liberty)

Another dropped hint at power is the allusion to their puppeteering of former President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal. These little tidbits I found alluring. But I admit that I was surprised at the narrator's appearance. To say nothing of the super weapon in his grip: The Lasso of Lies!

Dressed in a royal mantle and wearing a jeweled crown, a "king," if you will. Only, we've seen this guy before, haven't we? And we've seen this lasso before, too! It hung at the hip of Trinity, Wonder Woman's daughter from the future (as told in the last entry of Wonder Woman #800). And this king was the guy in silhouette whom she confronted in that Themyscrian cave prison.

"Sovereign" she called him. Great Hera! This whole narration, this flashback, this is the story he's sharing with Trinity. "This is the story of how she defeated me." Indeed. I'm a sucker for a plot twist. That "aha!" moment. Smarter fans than I surely knew all along. Still, it's a testament to King for weaving an absorbing narrative; if I were bored I might have drifted off and started considering the peripherals.

But I was on the hook! And I enjoyed this issue despite myself. I was initially put off by the whole "outlaw" thing. And the aforementioned connection to Amazons Attack! I was not expecting a conspiracy thriller intersecting a centuries-old puppet master with Wonder Woman's progeny. It's a strange but effective crossroads against which King unabashedly draws allegories to dark and shameful chapters from our own social and political history.

The only real problem with this is the conceit that Wonder Woman and the rest of Earth's mightiest superheroes would have no influence on public or political discourse. It's hard to imagine people turning their nose up at Wonder Woman, Superman, or the Justice League even during an emotional crisis such as this.

But these events, superheroes campaigning for tolerance, are told through narration rather than illustration. They're said to be noble but futile efforts. This is smart on King's part. He's a good writer and if he were to actually show scenes of the JLA advocating for reason and patience, or Wonder Woman pleading for love instead of hate, his whole story would be undone.

Besides, the narration allows for the villain to mock her efforts which makes him all the more despicable in our minds. Moreover, we are told that the Amazon ban was a bipartisan decision. This was a particular stretch for me. As was the AXE of violence with nary a hint of superhero intervention. The Amazons are more of the super world and one would think they would draw more assistance.

The sad truth is that we know all too well stuff like this happens all the time in real life. But in the world of superheroes and aliens and multiverses...? To his credit, King is a compelling storyteller, and this is one in which we can easily suspend our disbelief.

It's a story that is spectacularly brought to life by Daniel Sampere's pencils. Every page you just want to take in slowly. Tomeu Morey's colors and Clayton Cowles' letters complete the incredible visuals. I'm always leery of "Bold New Eras" and Wonder Woman has had a ton. Conceits and suspensions of disbelief notwithstanding, I'm excited to see where King takes this. HOLA! — Paul K. Bisson