Ralph Cosentino is in a fairly unique position when it comes to getting superheroes.
An extremely gifted artist and children’s picture book author, Cosentino has been tasked with telling the stories of several DC superheroes via picture books, which means Cosentino is a) Reclaiming the characters for the audience they were originally created for, b) simplifying their stories down to their most essential aspects in order to fit them into about 32 pages (or the equivalent of thirty-some panels) and c) streamlining them to make them as appealing as possible to an audience unfamiliar with their comics.
Of course, while the children’s story book and comic book have a lot in common, they’re not exactly equivalent, and Cosentino’s work faces some demands that the original, Golden Age comic books did not, including making these characters and their first stories beautiful enough and satisfying enough that they earn their permanent, expensive ($16) format.
Cosentino started this series with 2008’s Batman: The Story of The Dark Knight (which I discussed at some length on my home blog, here), and continued it last year with 2010’s Superman: The Story of The Man of Steel. I was particularly excited to check out his new book, Wonder Woman: The Story of the Amazon Princess, since the character seems like such a difficult one to get…at least judging by the property’s permanent residence in Hollywood development hell, the recently passed-over David E. Kelly TV pilot and DC’s now seemingly annual reboots of the comics character.
Of the three books, the Batman one is by far the best, a fact that may be due to the character having the simplest story and the widest, deepest history to pull from. Being the first didn’t hurt any either, as the format Cosentino established—first person narration of an in medias res adventure, an account of an origin, a quick tour of a rogues gallery, and a few pages/panels of mission statement—was freshest the first time.
If you’ve read the Batman and Superman books, one of the most immediately striking aspects of the Wonder Woman one is that Cosentino doesn’t fill it with the sorts of homages to classic panels, covers and poses that he did in the previous two; you can see the cover of Detective Comics #27 and the famous Flesicher Studios cartoon title card echoed right on their covers.
Instead, he takes a similar approach to the character that Walt Disney did with their 1997 Hercules movie, seeking design inspiration from the sides of Ancient Greek vases and other 2D art.
The book opens with a two-page “panel” featuring an aerial view of “Paradise island…the secret home of the warrior women known as Amazons,” with Wonder Woman circling it from the cockpit of a transparent plane. She’s seen from a far, her back to the reader.
Turn the page to the next two-page panel, and we see Wondy only visible from the waist down as she marches before a line of Amazon warriors standing before a flat, classic animation-like background of Greek temples and columns. We see the star-spangled shorts, a bracelet, red boots and a golden lasso. Then she races off in her plane to rescue an Inuit family trapped on a sinking ice floe, and to hang out with some Arctic animals (Batman’s opening adventure was to capture a bank robber, Superman’s to tear apart a pair of giant robots).
I’ve always thought one of Wondy’s biggest challenges in terms of finding new readers or adapting to new media was that, unlike the other points of DC’s trinity, her origin story (and all of her best stories) was (and were) specific to a particular period of time—World War II. Attempts to remove her from the “Save America and its allies from the Axis Powers” context inevitably make her mission seem vague and less urgent, and trying to find the equivalent of Hitler’s Nazis is understandably uncomfortable (If Martson created her a decade or two or three later, would she have been charged with fighting Soviet Communism? What if he created her today?)
Cosentino keeps the mythological aspects of her origin in place: The Greek gods have the childless Hippolyta sculpt a baby out of clay, and gave it life and special powers. The family drama aspect remains as well: A contest is held to find a champion to protect the world beyond Paradise Island, Wonder Woman enters secretly, defying her mother, and wins, receiving “A special costume, unbreakable silver bracelets, and a golden lasso of truth.” World War II and Steve Trevor are missing, and, as in George Perez’s take, Wonder Woman is sent to stop Ares, the god of war, who here “decided he wanted to rule the world.”
Over time, her mission “grew greater;” now it’s “to teach peace and respect to all…and to show the world how to live in harmony with nature…to save mankind and unite the people of earth through love and kindness.”
This is a pretty vague mission, compared to either her Golden Age one or the World’s Finest’s missions in their companion books, but that Cosentino opts for it is perhaps telling: Maybe this is as urgent as a modern day, timeless version of the Wonder Woman story can get…?
Also of note is the fact that Cosentino does away with the strange sci-fi fantasy trappings of the original Amazon society as presented by Marston and artist H.G. Peter, and the buildings, fashions and technology all seem perfectly in line with ancient Greece (um, except the invisible jet). The Amazons ride horses instead of kangas, and play arrows and bracelets instead of bullets and bracelets.
Cosentino uses the golden eagle version of the costume, and gives her shorts instead of panties. She also has a secret identity, Diana Prince, who is identified as “an ambassador in Washington, D.C.” (From Paradise Island? It doesn’t say) and she gets a spinning, lasso-derived transformation sequence.
The villain sequence includes Ares, given a pretty cool, Greek warrior-by-way-of hot rod costume, Silver Swan, Cheetah (Perez’s were-cheetah version) and Circe who, like Diana, is drawn with vase-like features.
So is this a Wonder Woman that work? Well, it doesn’t not work, which makes it a better take on the character than many others.
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