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Grumpy Old Fan | Can ‘Superman/Wonder Woman’ justify its love?

by  in Comic News Comment

This week sees the debut of Superman/Wonder Woman, the very existence of which brings into sharp relief a number of concerns about the treatment of both characters in the New 52. We’ll get into the specifics in a minute, but for now it may be enough to say that if the book had come out under a previous administration (say, the post-Infinite Crisis period, when the two leads were especially close friends), it might be enjoying a warmer overall reception. Superman/Wonder Woman #1 isn’t a bad comic book, but its premise — assuming the reader accepts it — does make for some awkward moments.

There’s been a lot going on with the Superman books lately: Piggybacking on Superman’s 75th anniversary and the Man of Steel movie, this year DC added three monthly Superman series, making SM/WW the fifth monthly title (this doesn’t count the sequel to the television series Smallville Season 11 or the anything-goes anthology Adventures of Superman). However, the suggestion that Jim Lee may draw just nine issues of Superman Unchained puts that title’s long-term fate up in the air; and both Batman/Superman and Superman/Wonder Woman seem somewhat disconnected from the regular goings-on in Superman and Action Comics.

That’s not a segue into proposing the Superman books be more interconnected. Rather, it’s more an observation that the series may not all speak with the same voice. This month, Scott Lobdell writes both Action Comics and Superman (because they’re crossing over as part of the “Psi War” storyline), while Greg Pak writes the conclusion of Batman/Superman’s inaugural “five years ago on Earth-2” arc and Scott Snyder’s Superman Unchained storyline chugs along on its own track. Next month Pak becomes Action’s regular writer (with another flashback story, this time set in the Snyder-written “Zero Year” of Batman), while Lobdell kicks off “Krypton Returns,” another crossover among Superman Superboy, and Supergirl.

Into this mix comes Superman/Wonder Woman’s creative team, writer Charles Soule and penciler Tony Daniel. (Daniel, you’ll remember, pitched in as Action’s scripter/penciler following writer Andy Diggle’s abrupt departure in March.) How they fit into the overall picture is, of course, tied to how Superman/Wonder Woman functions as both a Superman title and a Wonder Woman title. Put another way: How many Superman and/or Wonder Woman series does the world really need?

With Superman, the answer is apparently “at least two”: Action, which gave birth to the superhero genre, and Superman, because Action started out as an anthology and the publisher wanted a Superman-only title (which at first was published quarterly, as opposed to the monthly Action). Historical reasons aside, this is a reasonable arrangement. Superman is likely to be popular enough to warrant two series, and keeping Action Comics around allows DC to spotlight other characters occasionally, kind of like letting Batwoman headline Detective Comics. Back when DC was flush with anthologies, associated features like Superboy, Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes were regular fixtures in Action, More Fun Comics and Adventure Comics, while longtime supporting characters spun off into Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane. In the early 1970s, the latter two combined into the Superman Family anthology, while Superboy, Supergirl and the Legion spun off into their own individual series. Although Superman wasn’t really the focus of these other features, World’s Finest Comics had featured regular Superman stories (and, eventually, regular team-ups with Batman) since its 1941 debut; and in 1978, DC Comics Presents was launched as a regular Superman team-up title. Again, for the most part each of these series was justified on some level, although there weren’t particular creative-team distinctions among the titles that featured Superman solo stories. Those came later, particularly after the sea changes of the 1986 revamp.

Wonder Woman also appeared regularly in two titles from the 1940s into the early ‘50s. She debuted in a story in All-Star Comics #8 (December 1941-January 1942) before moving into the new Sensation Comics as its headliner. Wonder Woman appeared in all but the last three of Sensation’s 109 issues (cover-dated from January 1942 to May/June 1952). Meanwhile, her own title kicked off in summer 1942, starting out quarterly but becoming monthly with Issue 16 (April-May 1946). Although she hasn’t had a second regular series since the Sensation days, she hasn’t been isolated. In the Golden Age she showed up in All-Star as a regular member of the Justice Society; starting in the Silver Age she appeared regularly in Justice League of America; and in the 1970s, when DC repackaged its anthologies as 80-page “Dollar Comics,” Wonder Woman had brief runs in World’s Finest and Adventure.

Nevertheless, the singular Wonder Woman title has identified the character more with certain creative teams. Starting with creator William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter, these have included Bob Kanigher and Ross Andru in the Silver Age, Denny O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky in the “Diana Prince” period, Roy Thomas and Gene Colan in the early ‘80s; and modern professionals like writers/artists George Pérez, John Byrne and Phil Jiminez; writers William Messner-Loebs, Greg Rucka and Gail Simone; and the current team of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang.

Thus, while Superman developed fairly quickly into a character who — and this is not meant to diminish anyone’s contribution, least of all Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s — could be developed productively by many hands, Wonder Woman has tended to stay somewhat insular (for lack of a better term). It’s in this context that Soule and Daniel are guiding Superman/Wonder Woman. Specifically, the new series must reflect Azzarello and Chiang’s take on the character, including her current supporting cast; even though that take has so far tended to be downplayed (the Batwoman team-up notwithstanding) outside of the Wonder Woman series itself. By contrast, Soule and Daniel have more flexibility with Superman, because so many others have worked on the New 52 version of the character.

It’s telling that on the foldout cover of Superman/Wonder Woman #1, Lois and Jimmy are featured prominently, but the rest of Superman’s “side” is mostly villains (plus Cat Grant, who’s in the issue itself); whereas Wonder Woman’s includes a mix of friends and foes. This sums up the differences in approach neatly: since the New-52 reboot, the Superman books have gone heavy on the action, with not as much effort put into Clark’s friends; while Wonder Woman has built a strong supporting cast into its reworking of Diana’s world.

Still, none of that gets to the underlying purpose of Superman/Wonder Woman. It appears to exist as the main representative of the developing Superman/Wonder Woman romance, which I thought was a bad idea last year and which has provoked other strong fan reactions. Among these is the notion that the Superman/Wonder Woman romance necessarily diminishes the character of Lois Lane, not just by denying Lois a specific narrative function, but by removing her further from the spotlight. If DC wants to show Superman in a relationship, it should be with Lois, who after all was part of the Superman feature from the very beginning.

Even if DC doesn’t want Superman and Lois to get (back) together, she risks being pushed into the background by the Man of Steel’s relationship with Wonder Woman. Indeed, the New 52’s Lois hasn’t been seen a whole lot outside of the Superman books, which runs counter to her treatment at DC generally over the past few decades. That said, Superman/Wonder Woman doesn’t need its headliners to be in lurve in order to work — it just needs to tell good stories.

In this respect the first issue isn’t terrible, as long as it focuses on action. Soule doesn’t quite replicate Azzarello’s treatment of Wonder Woman, he only does a little better with Superman, and the plot depends on a global mistrust of superheroes which I’m not sure has played out in other series. However, it’s very nice-looking (speaking as someone who hasn’t been the biggest Tony Daniel fan) and there are a couple of good scenes with Cat Grant.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Superman/Wonder Woman #1

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Regardless, Superman/Wonder Woman #1 is built around the headliners’ romance, which is clearly a nonstarter for a vocal portion of DC’s readership. The main part of the issue deals with a maritime rescue gone wrong, but Soule uses flashbacks to show that Clark and Diana were on a date (following Clark’s meeting with Cat and a potential investor in their news website) when a Justice League alarm called them away. Therefore, among the scenes in the North Atlantic are character moments where Diana wonders why she and Clark have to keep their relationship secret, and Clark argues that it’s necessary. Granted, Superman’s secret identity is both well-established and well-justified, but beyond that he’s always been portrayed as fairly trusting, even to the point of being a little naive. (Plus there was that whole Lobdell-written outburst when Clark quit the Daily Planet that all but screamed “I AM GOING TO GO OFF AND BE SUPERMAN NOW.”) Therefore, this characterization may be a New 52 change I haven’t quite assimilated, but it still doesn’t ring especially true.

As mentioned above, it seems to be of a piece with New 52 DC-Earth not really trusting its superhumans, which is something Geoff Johns has been using in Justice League but that hasn’t really insinuated itself into other titles. However, Wonder Woman reacts to it here (and in Justice League, if memory serves) rather violently, after a misunderstanding causes a Norwegian destroyer to fire on her. This short fuse seemed to me to be part of DC’s general characterization shorthand for Wonder Woman, and it isn’t something which shows up in Wonder Woman regardless of who’s writing. Put another way, it’s a little hard to reconcile “you’d like us if you knew more about us” with “I am attacking your ship because you thought you were trying to protect yourself from us.” Those aren’t exact quotes, but I submit that maybe Wonder Woman could have said “We were trying to help you” before she started ripping those big cannons out of the destroyer’s main deck.

Soule is a little better in the quieter moments when Diana confides in a fellow Amazon — who neither I nor DC Women Kicking Ass recognized — but that dialogue is also a bit heavy on the exposition, and Diana’s concerns about not aging don’t sound like Azzarello’s confident warrior. To be fair, the “quiet moments” the Superman romance seem to have forced on Wonder Woman generally don’t sound like something Azzarello would have done, so the dissonance is probably unavoidable. Surely DC wants this series to help spur interest in Wonder Woman, but the execution is awkward at best.

And make no mistake, this book is firmly in the Superman stable. Like most of the other Superman titles, including Batman/Superman, it falls under the editorship of Eddie Berganza, while Matt Idelson edits Wonder Woman (and Superman Unchained). Although Soule strives mightily to divide the story equally, Clark/Superman drives the action: He leaves the meeting with Cat for the date with Diana, and the League only calls Superman, so Wonder Woman tags along. Additionally, Cat has another scene by herself (serving a subplot about the exposure of Superman and Wonder Woman’s relationship), while Wonder Woman’s supporting cast is barely mentioned outside of exposition. Finally, although I expect more Olympian bad guys to appear in future issues, the villain here comes from Superman’s stable.

END SPOILERS

Again, though, it’s a nice-looking book. Much of this is due to colorist Tomeu Morey, who brings an almost-watercolor look to Daniel’s pencils and Matt “Batt” Banning’s inks. However, Daniel’s storytelling is also pretty good, with judicious use of double-page spreads, panels that don’t seem cramped or crowded, and a two-page sequence that juxtaposes Wonder Woman’s fight scene against inset silhouettes showing tender moments with Clark. Batt’s inks lighten Daniel’s pencils, giving everyone that familiar early-Image-meets-manga look, while keeping the focus on what each panel is trying to convey. I’ve had problems with Daniel’s Batman work, and his previous Action issues were sometimes hard to decipher, but this is very straightforward.

Nevertheless, it reads very much like Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis’ take on the romance in Justice League. Neither there nor here has a creative team been able to bridge the disconnect between what’s going on with The Romance and what Azzarello and Chiang are doing in the actual Wonder Woman series. Those who don’t care about the latter may well find Superman/Wonder Woman to be pleasant enough; they may see those who do care as pedants, wedded to irrelevant views of the characters. However, for better or worse, DC gave Azzarello and Chiang the freedom to recreate Wonder Woman from the ground up, and it should therefore respect what they have chosen not to do.

I said at the top that if Superman/Wonder Woman had come out under a previous administration (with regard either to editorial attitude or continuity structure), it might be getting a better reception. It would definitely have a better grounding in the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship which started with an awkward “date” in 1988’s Action Comics #600 and developed into a deep and abiding, almost familial, friendship. An echo of that also came out this week, as Smallville Season 11 #18 presented the penultimate chapter of its own Superman/Wonder Woman team-up. For many fans, the pre-New 52 relationship between these characters didn’t need changing, and Superman/Wonder Woman is the latest attempt to convince them otherwise.

Time will tell whether either The Romance or this series have staying power. Certainly this series can continue past any breakup, as long as the two remain friends (and they’d almost have to, given the practicalities of DC’s shared universe). Maybe it will improve Wonder Woman’s sales. Maybe it’s all part of DC/Time Warner’s strategy to raise the Amazing Amazon’s profile in advance of her potential movie career. For now, though, Superman/Wonder Woman feels like a decently executed curiosity, emblematic of a decision visited on these characters from on high, and not especially suited for the long haul.