People often ask me why I like Wonder Woman, and while I can talk at length about iconic superheroes and female symbols of power, I think the bulk of my affection is due to the incredible skill of George Perez, Len Wein, and Greg Potter. Their relaunch of the character in 1987 had such an enormous impact on my perception of her, and more than that, on my understanding of her important role in the world.
Like so many of us, most of my childhood back issues are still stashed in my parents house (I dread the day they move and I have to pay the insane shipping charges to bring them back from the UK). Last month, while exploring the back issue bins in a new local comic book store, I discovered a couple of issues of the old 1987 Wonder Woman. After snapping them up, my appetite was whet for more and I borrowed a copy of the compilation of the first 7 issues of Perez’ ’87 run; “Gods and Mortals”. Two things jumped out at me; First of all, the subject matter is as wonderfully loving and clever as I remember it. Secondly, the density and composition of the physical book was outrageously rich, packing at least twice as much content onto a single page than any current comic book I can think of.
Addressing Perez, Potter, and Wein’s approach to Wonder Woman is fascinating, as they managed to combine many of the original story elements and weave them into a relevant, potent, all-ages story. With their work, they (re)created a female superhero who truly embodies the genre. As soon as the story begins, the tone is set when the Amazons are born from the spirits of the first women violently killed by men. Their negative experiences clearly stem from a nasty combination of meddling Ares and our own, all-too-human inability to communicate and trust each other, it is a highly moral story for us, even if it is simply a couple of pages of backstory. Later, Diana alone is created from the spirit of an unborn child, who’s mother was killed and is set apart from her sisters, as less fearful and more suited to become the bridge to “man’s world”. Gifted very specifically by each of the gods who births her, she has elements of a sort of Captain Marvel origin, which I loved when I read it the first time, labeling and understanding her powers. When she used those powers, Perez and Wein call out the god who gave them to her, i.e. “With the extraordinary speed that is her birthright, a gift from the noble Hermes, Diana becomes a blur of motion…” There is a kind of respect in that, and an understanding that her heritage is an essential part of who she is. This is confirmed when the first person Wonder Woman is guided to contact is in Harvard, Professor Julia Kapatelis, who helps her learn English and understand the modern world. By making this her first friend in our realm, there are hints at the importance of knowledge and learning. With the professor, her teen daughter Vanessa, Colonel Steve Trevor, and his friends Colonel Matthew Michaelis and Lieutenant Etta Candy, Wonder Woman battles Ares’ sons, his brainwashed human servants, and finally Ares himself. Because of the kind of book it is, we are allowed to hear Wonder Woman’s thoughts as she marvels at the “frail nobility” of her new friends, never having seen such physical diversity on the island she grew up on. The learning she is experiencing is printed for us in her thought bubble and narrative dialogue boxes (both almost entirely a thing of the past, unfortunately) and through her eyes we are given a new perspective on our own humanity.
It might seem cheesy now to say that I like this comic book because it is moral and has a positive message, but that is who I see Wonder Woman as; a profoundly moral character. Someone almost on the level of Superman, but with more proverbial teeth, and a little less of the Boy Scout about her (and I mean that in the old school be-prepared or very-helpful sense of the words, not in the current ways that are so unfortunately in the news). It’s a big, bleak world out there and to my mind, what we need is a LOT more of the Perez-type of Wonder Woman.
So the story is hopeful and positive, but what of the book? How is so much packed in and why did it take me more than twice as long to read than a current trade paperback would? When I began looking at the pages, I realized that while most contemporary comic book pages are generally broken up into 4 or 5 panels (sometimes more, sometimes less), most of Perez’ pages comprise of 10 or more panels. It is absolutely insane that he not only packs in more sequential story telling, but he also doesn’t skimp on detail, nor does he EVER make the story feel crowded or squeezed. Somehow, I’m able to very happily read a page with 14 panels and not feel in the least bit confused about where my eye needs to go next, nor do I feel confused or overwhelmed by content. In fact, my early consumption of so many of Perez’ stories could explain why nowadays, I often feel so cheated by the lack of content in comic books – I was spoiled!
Back in 1987, George Perez masterminded a relaunch of Wonder Woman which cemented her as a powerful icon, for men and women alike. When I first read it 26 years ago, it changed the way I saw the character, and impacted my appreciation of what I’d previously seen as a rather tired old warrior. Rereading “Gods and Mortals”, I was amazed at how far we have come from a time when the best entertainment offered a vision of a young woman battling to end war and to enlighten us to the end result of constant, escalating destruction.
Time have changed, we no longer live under the simple threat of impending nuclear destruction, and while wars rage all around the world, the threats to our environment and our resources are more pressing. Perhaps this is why our media offers us increasing visions of death and destruction, every new film climaxing with increasingly plausible wrecked cities. Do we so fear this that we need to see it? Or is it that we cannot cope with the work required to combat such problems, and so it is easier to simply try to inure ourselves to societies ultimate collapse? Whatever the reason, Perez’ Wonder Woman was a much-needed breath of fresh air, proving herself by defeating the ultimate threat of Ares, the god of war, not by killing him, but by wrapping him in her lasso forged from the stuff of life, Gaia, the earth, and letting him see that the end result of escalating destruction would be no winner. The entertainment media of the ’80’s seem so sweet and naive now, all War Games and tic-tac-toe, but there truly are no winners and Wonder Woman was about showing the world how essential our unity is for our continued survival. He created an icon suitable for all-ages, aspirational and always learning, we could do with something so sweet and naive now.
George Perez was always a master of detail, drawing every cloud of smoke, every window on each building, every extremely curly hair on Wonder Woman’s head. It isn’t until now, looking back at his work, that I realize he was also incredibly good at creating a dynamic, fast-pace with his panels. Every page is different, every time there is a unique rhythm, speaking volumes and added tons to the accompanying words. Combine this with a skillfully crafted, soulful story and you have an icon for the ages. Perez, Potter, and Wein gave me a great gift when I was growing up, they gave me a woman to look up to, to aspire to, and to learn with and from. On top of that, they gave me a type of storytelling which altered the way I read and the way I communicate my own thoughts. Perez’ vision of Wonder Woman is the gold standard of superhero comic books which all others should aspire to, both in content and in execution. I still hope that one day, from the roots of this story someone will create something even better for a new age, but I have yet to see it.