Grumpy Old Fan | Filling out Wonder Woman's backlist

Last month DC Comics announced it had put together a new list of “essential” graphic novels and collections, designed to help casual readers and completists alike. This week I picked up a copy of the 121-page catalog (Issue 1, of course) along with my regular Wednesday haul.

Now, we all love lists, and this looks to be more comprehensive than the 30-item Jeph Loeb-heavy suggestions DC had previously offered.  Could the new DC Entertainment Essential Graphic Novels and Chronology 2013 actually represent the depth and breadth of DC’s vast publishing history, and at least try to give each major character the attention he or she deserved?

Well ...

I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but judging from the two pages devoted to “Women of DC Comics,” the answer doesn’t look promising for said women. As Sue (of DC Women Kicking Ass) and Bleeding Cool have already pointed out, Green Arrow and the Flash both get two-page spreads (each, to be fair, split between a one-page portrait and a one-page checklist), while Wonder Woman has to share two pages with Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman and the Huntress. Although the DC Entertainment Essential Graphic Novels and Chronology 2013 could use more female-centric titles (no Power Girl, Manhunter, Stephanie Brown or Cass Cain Batgirl, or Stars and STRIPE, and not a lot of Supergirl), today it may be enough just to focus on Wonder Woman.

She gets her own section in the text-only “backlist” pages, but it doesn’t add much. In total, DC recommends five WW books: the Greatest Wonder Woman Stories, the Twelve Labors paperback from the early 1970s, the first New 52 collection (Blood), and the two-volume Odyssey (written by Phil Hester and penciled by Don Kramer and others, after writer J. Michael Straczynski abandoned the project). Three extended arcs and an anthology isn’t a lot for a character who’s more than 70 years old.

Ironically, Wonder Woman’s recent publishing history lends itself easily to today’s collected-edition practices. Since the 1986 George Pérez-led reboot, Wonder Woman has had relatively few creative-team changes, particularly on the writer’s end. The tenures of Pérez (as co-plotter/penciller/writer), Bill Messner-Loebs, John Byrne (writer/penciller), Phil Jimenez (writer/penciller), Greg Rucka and Gail Simone, pretty well cover the 25 years of pre-New 52 stories. In fact, the Rucka and Simone years are probably still available for reasonable prices (and Jimenez may be as well, but I’m not as clear on coverage or cost).

However, the point is that DC could easily make these runs available, mostly by putting books back in print. The Rucka run includes five collections and the Hikiteia graphic novel, the Simone run also includes five collections, and there are at least two Phil Jimenez collections (Paradise Lost and Paradise Found) floating around.

(By the way, the DC website’s Graphic Novels section used to be a lot more user-friendly. It was organized by book title, and you could jump easily to the Bats, or the Ws, or whatever. Now it’s organized by release date, and you have to select “Graphic Novels.”  The only way to see the complete list is to select “all dates,” which yields 100 pages, navigable only a few pages at a time, with no way to jump to particular sections, or even the end. The Wonder Woman books start on Page 97, but I couldn't find a way to link directly to them. Searching Amazon or Barnes & Noble is a lot easier.)

The question then becomes, what is DC trying to accomplish with this list? The “30 Essential” lists seemed to reflect perennial bestsellers, but the new catalog obviously wants to be more wide-ranging. Still, you’d think that Wonder Woman -- one of DC’s longest-lived characters, one who’s been published continuously since her debut, and one who’s readily recognizable to the average person -- would be better-represented. (I know that’s a little redundant, but it really bears repeating.) Does DC want to emphasize what it thinks will sell, what it thinks represents the character best, or what it thinks should never go out of print?

If this list describes what DC wants to sell, and sell right away, then it should be updated frequently. Certainly if the list had come out even two years ago there’d be more Simone in the Wonder Woman section, because those books were still pretty new. The Odyssey books would probably also be on the list for the same reason. However, the more “new” becomes “old,” the more it can be re-evaluated. Who knows what “Odyssey” might have been if the relaunch hadn’t imposed yet more changes on Wonder Woman? Today, “Odyssey” is basically an alternate-timeline story that DC probably wants to market on the strength of JMS’s name recognition. (Granted, it was like that at the time, too.) It’s not a sample of the ordinary serialized storylines you’d expect from a regular Wonder Woman comic.

Still, you can turn that around pretty easily. There are plenty of Batman and Superman collections done by big-name creative teams that don’t depend on the trappings of regular serialized superhero comics. “Hush” and “For Tomorrow” were serialized in Batman and Superman, but each stood apart from any ongoing concerns appearing in those titles -- or, for that matter, the sister books like Detective Comics and Adventures of Superman. Indeed, while the Superman books spent many years building up their supporting casts and working long-term subplots around them, the Bat-books have been organized around collection-ready standalone arcs practically since “Knightfall.” Accordingly, DC may see “Odyssey” as one of the few Wonder Woman storylines that truly compares to her fellow Trinitarians’ 12-issue epics.

In that respect, if DC wants to sell lots of Wonder Woman books, the numbers might favor someone buying two Odyssey volumes over a more scattershot approach based around Pérez, Byrne, et al. You might try one Rucka or Simone collection and decide it’s not for you; but maybe if you buy the first Odyssey collection, even if you’re lukewarm on it, you’ll come back for the second to see if it gets better. (And, ironically, it probably does, if you’re not a fan of the unadulterated JMS.) That’s two books sold, and the New 52 revamp might look enough like “Odyssey” to bring in additional sales of those collections. That’s pretty cynical, not to mention borderline unrealistic -- would readers really give up on the entirety of Wonder Woman if just one collection failed to impress? -- but DC may be so frustrated trying to sell Wonder Woman comics that it’s gone straight for the surest thing.

To be sure, DC is selling more than just Odyssey, but apparently not much more. As mentioned above, the new Essential Graphic Novels lists the first New 52 collection, plus the Greatest Stories and the Twelve Labors. Wonder Woman also figures in the Justice League collections, as well as general-purpose DC stories like Kingdom Come and Trinity. However, it bothers me that her Chronicles series (now up to Volume 3) isn’t mentioned anywhere, although the Batman, Superman and Green Lantern Chronicles are. (The Flash Chronicles are also nowhere to be found, but that section is rather Geoff Johns-centric anyway.) I think this Essential catalog even omits the Showcase Presents series entirely.

While I can understand DC wanting to push Odyssey and the New 52 collections, it still seems rather shortsighted. If that’s all they want to sell, it’s all they will end up selling; and the good works of the past (including the Golden, Silver and Bronze Age) risk being forgotten. The frustrating thing is that these periods are all covered to various degrees. The Chronicles and Archives have the Golden Age material, Showcase Presents covers the Silver Age, the four-book Diana Prince collection chronicled the “white suit” period, and the Twelve Labors book detailed its aftermath. That still leaves a good ten years’ worth of Bronze Age stories before the Pérez era starts. DC hasn’t been ignoring this stuff, but this Essential catalog would have been a great way to at least list it. Even giving readers a list of books which have gone out of print would be helpful. (That way we’d know specifically what to complain about.)

Look, I don’t want this to be dismissed as a My List Is Better exercise. We can debate the merits of Wonder Woman creative teams some other time. Indeed, if the post-revamp, pre-New 52 period (1986-2011) has taught us anything, it’s that Wonder Woman is capable of many different interpretations. Pérez and company made her an ambassador, and Messner-Loebs and Byrne turned her into an adventurer (and Byrne made her a goddess). Jimenez emphasized her relationships, Rucka her political side, and Simone her compassionate-warrior dichotomy. I can see DC not wanting to favor one interpretation over another, especially when it might involve (gasp!) buying a lot of books, but to ignore all of them is a bit extreme.

Besides, if you don’t understand Wonder Woman, why not explore her history? Compare a Chronicles volume to a Phil Jimenez arc, or a crazy Bob Kanigher/Ross Andru adventure to one of John Byrne’s stories. (I recommend the Cave Carson team-up.) I mean, there must be a reason why she survived all that innuendo in the ‘40s, Dr. Wertham in the ‘50s, and losing her powers in the ‘70s. It doesn’t all come back to Lynda Carter or George Pérez. Admittedly, that kind of research would be a lot easier if your neighborhood library stocked a more robust selection of Wonder Woman books, but it might not know about ‘em if they’re not on DC’s new official-looking list.

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