Tag Archives: The Diana Prince Years

Denny O’Neil and Dr. Cyber return, the white pantsuit goes: Wonder Woman #199-204

After Mike Sekowsky’s final issue, #196, we got two issues of reprints and then Denny O’Neil took over the writing with Don Heck on the art (Jeffrey Catherine Jones provides the cover). “Tribunal of Fear” opens with someone making the mistake of puling a gun on Diana and giving her orders. Doesn’t go well for him. It turns out it’s Jonny Double, a PI who previously appeared in a tryout issue of Showcase but without doing well enough to launch a series. Jonny explains his client wants to meet Diana, but first directed the detective to see how she handles trouble, hence pulling the gun. A second later, an old woman picking up Diana’s dropped umbrella dies — someone shot a poisoned dart at Jonny but hit the umbrella instead.

Jonny’s client turns out to be Fellows Dill, a Hugh Hefner-type but with more obvious sleaze. A group called the Tribunal is trying to kill him out of disgust for Dill promoting godless immorality with his business; Diana’s inclined to agree with them but when Dill says he can pay for an operation to restore I Ching’s sight, she’s on board. She and Jonny accompany Dill on his private cross-country train; the Tribunal destroys the tracks and capture Jonny and Diana.The Tribunal sends Jonny to bring them Dill, with Diana as hostage; despite being shackled to a wall, she figures out a way to escape, but waits until the last minute. When Jonny finally shows, without Dill, Diana busts out and saves Jonny as well (he’s a little thrown in all this by not being the lead hero, but he handles it pretty well). Outside the Tribunal lair, they stop and almost kiss when a crazy Dill shows up shooting at them.

In #200, “The Beauty Hater,” with art by Dick Giordano, Diana stops Dill right after he injures  Jonny. A St. Bernard rescue dog shows up with a cask of brandy — then attacks and almost blows them up; the cask actually held nitro. They find refuge at a cabin filled with paintings of beautiful women, the faces torn by knives. Tribunal soldiers arrive in a VTOL so our heroes fight them, take the plane but discover its being flown by remote control. Arriving at a fortress, they fight through several more perils and traps before being captured.

It turns out Dr. Cyber’s behind it, wearing a metal mask over her scarred face as she would from then on. After surviving her apparent death, she explains, she became obsessed for a while with destroying beauty (this is even more scarface disability cliche than her last appearance), hence creating the Tribunal to use against Dill. Now, however, she’s found an ally, Dr. Moon (a mad scientist for hire who’d crop up multiple times in different books over the years), who can transfer her brain into Diana’s body. And because she wants revenge, no anesthetic for Ms. Prince. Of course things don’t work out that way, and Cyber winds up dying again, apparently.

Overall, despite the disability cliches, this is a competent story with some good action scenes and a workable love interest in Jonny. Part two pays little attention to the 200th issue landmark, even though DC had been celebrating that for a while.

In the next issue, “Fist of Flame,” Diana’s going to introduce I Ching to Jonny, but the PI has vanished from his office. A couple of Asian swordsmen attack, then kill themselves when they fail; one of them gasps out a reference to the “Fist of Flame,” which I Ching identifies as a priceless gem worshipped by a Tibetan sect. A warning note tells Diana to find the Fist if she wants to see Jonny again.To get the money for a trip to Tibet,Diana sells her boutique. After an arduous journey she and I Ching arrive in a lost Tibetan valley (the kind that’s miraculously warm amidst the ice and snow outside) where Diana encounters an unexpected obstacle: Catwoman, who’s after the gem herself, even though it doesn’t fit her usual cat-motif crimes. Captured by the Fist-worshippers, the two women have to battle over a fiery pit, but Diana saves them both. Catwoman explains she hired Jonny to find the Fist of Flame, but he ran into an obstacle — a gang run by a woman named Lu Shan. As Selina, Diana and I Ching learn this, the Flame magically transports them to Nehwon, home of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. In “Fangs of Fire,” written by SF grandmaster Samuel Delaney, the two sets of heroes fight, then team up against a sorcerer, Gawron; Mouser and Fafhrd want to rob him of another gem, the Eye of the Ocean but he’s also devised a dimensional gate that can get the Earthers home. They sneak into his fortress, action erupts, then the Fist of Flame brings Jonny and Lu Shan from Earth. Jonny, I Ching and Catwoman go home through the gate; Lu Shan remains behind in Nehwon, trapped forever. Fafhrd and the Mouser go with the heroes, take one look at modern civilization and go home (to star in their short-lived Sword of Sorcery comics series).

Rereading I realized some of the errors in this, like Catwoman knowing Diana Prince is Wonder Woman (nobody does) are probably more retcon than deliberate error; perhaps O’Neil or Delany thought she’d be a more interesting character that way. Others can’t: why would Catwoman hire Jonny to find the Fist for her? He’s a standard-issue PI, hardly the Indiana Jones type the job would seem to require. And this wastes Lu Shan, using her as a generic criminal — we never do learn what the backstory was that made her hate her father. Though there is one good moment when Grey Mouser and Catwoman compete at chasing a mouse, just for fun.

The Diana Prince era wraps up with “The Grandee Caper,” Delaney’s godawful attempt at a relevant story about the women’s liberation movement, which I dissected in enough detail at the link so I won’t repeat (though that post erred in saying the sale of the boutique just happened off stage). Then (also described at the link), Robert Kanigher returns to the book, kills off I Ching ——and also has the sniper kill a fictionalized version of Dorothy Woolfolk, who edited the book for the two reprint issues before “Tribunal of Fear” (so why have her die rather than say, O’Neil or Sekowsky?). Wonder Woman becomes an Amazon again and everyone forgot I Ching and the depowered years ever happened (though Dr. Cyber kept popping up as an adversary). And with that issue, WW’s Diana Prince: Celebrating the ’60s Omnibus ends.

#SFWApro. Covers to 201-203 by Dick Giordano, bottom panel by Don Heck. All rights remain with current holder.

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Farewell Mr. Sekowsky: Wonder Woman #194-6

Mike Sekowsky’s career is a mystery to me, which online research has so far failed to solve. After years as a penciller, he starts writing multiple books at the end of the Silver Age, not just Wonder Woman but Supergirl, Metal Men and the unsuccessful Showcase tryout series Jason’s Quest and Manhunter 2070. Then in 1971, he writes Wonder Woman #196 and after that he’s an artist the rest of his career. I’ve tried researching him online but the reason for this sudden swerve into writing has so far eluded me. That said …

Wonder Woman #194, “The Prisoner,” has Diana vacationing in Europe, sans I Ching, in a small kingdom where everyone’s treating her like royalty — except some goons who make the mistake of trying to kidnap her. It turns out it’s because she looks exactly like Princess Fabiola. Which inevitably means that the princess gets captured and, just like the classic Prisoner of Zenda, Diana has to replace her or the next in line to the throne will use Fabiola’s disappearance as an excuse to seize power. This is really awkward as the princess is getting married tomorrow, but of course Diana sees it through. It’s a departure from the usual spy thriller/neighborhood hero style of this era, but it works.

#195, “The House That Wasn’t,” is another departure. It’s a snowy winter night when Diana and I Ching stop to help some stranded motorists. Unfortunately they’re actually escaped convicts who force our heroes to walk along with them (though if it wasn’t necessary for the plot, either I Ching or Diana could have taken them down). They end up in a small inn along with a writer and a guy who appears to be an embezzler fleeing with his loot, which attracts the convicts. The smiling owner and her son are friendly enough, but I Ching senses Evil and Diana feels something wrong too. One of the cons murders the embezzler, but it turns out he’s just a man running away from his marriage — the briefcase he carries holds travel brochures for the trip he’d hoped to take. But then something kills the convict …

It turns out the owner and her son are ghosts, killing travelers in death as they did in life; the more they kill, the more frequently they can materialize. Despite their ghostly powers, the owner’s son makes the mistake of under-estimating Diana; that and I Ching’s occult knowledge lead to their destruction.

For Sekowsky’s last story, “Target for Today,” we return to espionage and intrigue. A dying military intelligence agent collapses in the room, begging I Ching to get a message to the man’s employer, Gen. Stuart. I Ching knows the general, having worked for him too — which seems odd, as we know I Ching was a monk who left his contemplative life when Dr. Cyber wiped out the monastery. Then again, we don’t know what he was doing before he entered the monastery, so why not?

The message involves the ambassador from Koronia being the target of an assassination plot. While I Ching goes to the general, Diana bodyguards the handsome ambassador, saving him from a gunman and a glass of poisoned champagne. When Gen. Stuart informs Diana that her Army intelligence discharge papers include terms allowing him to reactivate her, she’s not happy, but as she’s protecting him anyway …

After another assassination attempt, the ambassador finally gets to meet President Nixon — but at the last second, Diana realizes he’s an imposter: his real mission is to kill the president, blowing himself up in the process. With no proof he was a ringer, the government will be thrown out of power and the bad guys will take over.

I’d have liked to see more of Sekowsky’s work, but it wasn’t to be. With the next issue Denny O’Neil returns, Don Heck replacing Sekowsky on the art (followed by Dick Giordano the rest of this run). It wasn’t a change for the better.#SFWApro. All covers by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holders.

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The Diana Prince Years: Wonder Woman vs. tyranny and tragedy

Welcome back to my on-going look at the white pantsuit era of late Silver Age Wonder Woman. Following Diana’s trip to China, Sekowsky’s last seven issues were all over the map: horror, sword-and-sandal adventure, a Prisoner of Zenda knockoff as well as stories in the styles he’d already established, with Diana defending her neighborhood and dealing with international intrigue. If Sekowsky wanted to show the series could do more than just spy stuff, he succeeded.

Detour in Wonder Woman#190 launches a three issue sword-and-sandal tale, though #191 was actually a reprint with a few new pages added as a framing sequence (Diana’s companion asks who she is and how she came to be, so she recaps the transition from Amazon to Ordinary Woman). Diana goes to visit Paradise Island in its otherworldly home again, but a dimensional storm blows her and her guide Leda off-course, landing them in the world of Chalandor. The local queen’s forces capture Diana for the arena — she doesn’t go down easily, of course — and she ends up thrown in a dungeon with the barbarian prince Ranagor. Diana, however, has some of the spy gadgets she acquired during one of her previous adventures and busts her chains using a button that conceals a powerful acid. She and Ranagor escape … but their getaway path just leads the to the arena. The queen unleashes her nastiest beast, the reptilian gnarth, but Diana finds a way to beat it, then she and Ranagor bust out.

The duo find Ranagor’s father’s army, which lays siege to the queen’s Castle Skull. It goes badly for the besiegers until Diana mixes up some gunpowder to make small rockets and even then the fortress is able to hold out. After a duel with the queen fails to resolve things (the queen cuts and runs rather than admit defeat), Diana hits on the idea of blowing up the castle gates with a whole lot of gunpowder (shouldn’t that have been an obvious option?) and the fortress falls. Leda shows up with the Amazons, too late to help but they do provide Diana a way home. It’s a mixed bag. “Hey, I know how to make gunpowder” is a resolution I’ve seen in god knows how many adventure tales of heroes trapped in lost cities and the adventure as a whole is too stock to work for me. Sekowsky’s art, however, is great and the story shows off Diana’s formidable abilities at their best. This time out, she doesn’t need a man, not even I Ching, to do the heavy lifting.

Angela brings Diana back to her current neighborhood. When Tony Petrucci disappears, packing his gun, his Mom reveals to Diana that three years earlier Tony’s sister Angela went into a coma after someone spiked the food at a party with “funny seasoning.” Eddie Dean, Tony’s buddy from ‘nam was at the party and Tony accuses him of being the culprit, given his history of practical jokes that went wrong. Eddie denies it, pointing out he got sick from the stuff himself. Mrs. Petrucci explains that Tony has never given up searching for the person responsible; his increased frustration has led to him lashing out and beating up the local homeless population simply as a convenient target. Now he’s found a fresh lead and his mother is terrified, with good reason obviously, that he’s going to cross a line.

Diana investigates which immediately generates blowback. Hoods try to scare her off; when she slaps them around, they tell her a local lowlife named Runty Sneed hired them. Diana finds Runty dead, but pretends he gave her a dying message, figuring that will bring the bad guys after her again. Sure enough, there’s another hit, which gives her the clue she needs: Eddie’s behind it. She arrives at his upscale apartment to learn Tony’s already figured it out and has dragged Eddie up into the girders of the under-construction skyscraper next door.  She climbs up after them to find Eddie has a slight edge in the fight, but not once Diana shows up. After she decks Eddie, Tony wants to finish him off but Diana disables him temporarily, then the cops show.

It’s almost a great story of revenge and redemption, but not quite. For one thing the plot is confused: Eddie’s simultaneously a stupid practical joker — he tried to spice up the food with hot sauce, unaware the bottle he found was the maid’s container for cleaning fluid — and a drug dealer who thought getting the guests high would help him find a new batch of customers. That second reveal comes out of nowhere, and I imagine the autopsies would have established “drug overdose” was the cause of death three years earlier if that had been the case. Similarly, Tony pegged Eddie as the culprit because he’d pulled a joke like that once before and because Tony figured out Eddie’s lifestyle was financed by drugs. Its like Sekowsky considered two explanations and went with both of them.

And then at the end, we have a too-convenient happy wrap-up when it turns out Angela’s doctor has finally brought her out of the coma, and not only that he wants to marry her. Much as I enjoy a good eucatastrophe, this one was a little too miraculous.

#SFWApro. Covers by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holder.

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Chinese Wonder: Wonder Woman #187-9

When we last looked at Wonder Woman during her Diana Prince phase, she’d defended her neighborhood from Them and Morgana. For the next three issues, written and drawn by Mike Sekowsky, she’s back in international super-spy mode as she and I Ching hunt Dr. Cyber in China.

We open #187, Earthquaker, with someone having gunned down I Ching (the story inside follows directly from the cover scene). I Ching gets a call for help from an old friend in Hong Kong and arranges passage with Patrick McGuire, a roguish Irishman he knows from back before he lost his sight. Diana, of course, insists on going along; on the flight they meet Lu Shan, an attractive Chinese woman. Mid-flight, stowaways with guns sneak out and try to steal something from Lu Shan, confident two women and a blind guy can’t be much of a challenge …

In the aftermath, Lu Shan identifies the men as members of the Tiger Tong, an adversary of her employer; I Ching identifies Lu Shan as his long-lost daughter by half of a broken talisman she carries (he has the other half). When they land in Hong Kong, the Tong strikes again so we get some lively action scenes as I Ching, Patrick and Diana deliver Lu Shan to her boss. Patrick gets lost along the way, but gets a dinner date from Diana.

Unfortunately Lu Shan’s boss is Dr. Cyber; the cargo Diana and I Ching helped Lu Shan deliver contains the power source for Cyber’s earthquake-generating technology, which will now level Hong Kong as a demonstration to the world. In return for her part in the scheme, Lu Shan gets her fondest wish: to kill I Ching in revenge for the murder of her mother! Despite which Cyber offers Diana a place in her organization.

At this point the Tiger Tong leader shows up to claim the Earthquaker. Cyber electrocutes him and his men with a booby-trap but one of them, dying, fires his gun at her, knocking over a brazier and pouring hot coals over Cyber’s face. Diana rushes I Ching to a hospital,, as Lu Shan does for her employer. Cyber directs her to activate the Earthquakers and also send hit squads after Diana and I Ching.

In the following issue, Lu Shan unleashes both earthquakes and kill squads; with I Ching in hospital, Diana fights back alongside Patrick and Hong Kong cop Inspector McLean. When she captures one of Cyber’s agents, the woman tells her how to deactivate the Earthquakers, but Diana deduces they’re booby trapped and forces the woman to show how to deactivate them.

At the last Earthquaker, however, Cyber’s waiting, filled with hated for Diana for scarring her — although as Diana points out, she didn’t have a thing to do with that Tiger Tong gunman. Cyber attempts to kill Diana but ends up falling into her own machinery, electrocuting herself and in the process destroying the Earthquaker. Cyber is dead, but Lu Shan swears to avenge her; in the end we learn she’s fled into “Red” China with I Ching, recovered from his injuries, on her tail.

Diana and Patrick disguise themselves in yellowface and slip into China. When they find I Ching, he’s been diverted from pursuit of his daughter by the need to help his friends in a small village: they will soon be shipped north to work in the mines unless they escape across the border. To that end, they’ve found an old riverboat with which to travel to Hong Kong, and enough weapons to hopefully hold back any Chinese forces that try to stop them. I Ching, Patrick and Diana travel along and help them accomplish the impossible. McLean informs Diana that for the unauthorized border crossing her passport is now revoked, but she won’t have to leave before he, and a slightly jealous Patrick, take her out to dinner.

The first two parts are a good spy/action thriller, the third more a war comic very much in the commie-smashing mode of the Cold War, plus some uncomfortable White Savior elements (just look at the cover). It’s noteworthy for being the first story in which Di wears the all-white pantsuit outfit most associated with this period, and for turning the formidable Cyber into a scarface disability cliche.

It should have been notable for launching Lu Shan as the book’s new villain, which clearly what Sekowsky intended. Too bad it didn’t happen before he left the book; we saw her one more time, as a kind of generic villain, and never learned anything about her blood feud with her father.

Oh, I almost forgot, the middle issue includes a backup story in which Diana roughs up a cross-dressing pickpocket, “Creepy Caniguh,” who’s a dead ringer for former WW-writer Robert Kanigher, whom Sekowsky loathed.

#SFWApro. All  images by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holder.

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Wonder Woman and Superman: Power Couple

Reading DC’s omnibus of WW’s depowered period, it’s surprising to realize that Wonder Woman/Superman didn’t become a thing until she lost her powers. That’s weird, right? I mean the only reason for shipping them is that he’s the one man on Earth strong and awesome enough to match her, right? Yet outside of one scene in Wonder Woman #130, where she goes on a date with Superman to torment Steve, Superman/WW was never a thing until she lost her powers (yes, this is another spotlight on Diana Prince’s martial-arts phase, which now have their own tag “The Diana Prince Years”).

In Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #93, by former WW scribe Robert Kanigher, it turns out Lois has been nagged for years by fear about Wonder Woman winning Superman, but fortunately she’s now powerless so no problemo! Nevertheless, when Wonder Woman asks for help regaining her powers, Lois agrees (contrary to the new canon in Wonder Woman, everyone knows Diana Prince is the superhero formerly known as Wonder Woman). Before long, Diana and Superman are having a torrid affair then headed for the altar. Fortunately it turns out the villain is a Phantom Zone escapee out to kill Superman, and he’d decided not to go through with it anyway. It is not a good story.

There have been multiple stories between then and the New 52 (where Lois is back with Superman, in case you had any doubts), almost all either a trick of some sort: magical compulsion or a ruse they’re playing on the villain (Brian Cronin tracks them all here).  And I’m okay with that. As I said when I read Superman/Wonder Woman: Power Couple, they work great as buddies; I’d happily read a World’s Finest-type team up book where Superman and Wonder Woman worked together the way Superman and Batman have, but not as a couple.

For one thing, Superman/Lois has been a thing forever. He’s had other loves here and there, but there’s never really been a question of anyone besides Lois ending up with him. For another, the underlying idea annoys me. It implies that WW could never accept a man as ordinary as Steve; she’s got to be with the one man who’s even stronger than she is. From Diana’s perspective, I think that’s wrong; whatever her standards for lovers are (something that hasn’t been tackled enough in recent years), they’re probably better than “wow, what a big strong man!” (although of course Superman has many other excellent traits himself). Hell, the Golden-Age version flatly ruled out loving a man stronger than she was.

Like a lot of bad ideas in comics, this one seems much more heavily shipped by creators than fans, though I could be wrong.

And while we’re on the subject of team-ups, I’ll run over the others in Wonder Woman Diana Prince: Celebrating the ’60s Omnibus:

“The Widow Maker” in Brave and the Bold #87. When Bruce Wayne enters an auto race, someone tries sabotage and violence to get him out of it. Batman steps in for the too-injured-to-race Bruce; I Ching and Diana, attending the race, help stop the bad guys. It’s written and drawn by Mike Sekowsky and fits with his work on the regular Wonder Woman at the time.

“Now Comes Zond” in Adventure #397, also written by Sekowsky. Supergirl tries to save a young woman from a cult led by the occultist Zond. When Zond kicks her butt with magic, she asks Supergirl to put her in touch with Morgana, the witch she battled in her neighborhood. Morgana is less than thrilled until she learns who they’re fighting: Zond was her mother Morgan leFay’s stableboy who stole some of Morgan’s scrolls and set himself up as a wizard. It doesn’t go well for Zond after that.

Oh, and as Supergirl’s costume was torn in her fight with Zond, Diana also takes her and Morgana to the boutique for some new outfits (Supergirl’s, as noted in the illustration, was designed by a reader, something comics have done for years).

Denny O’Neil turns in a forgettable story in World’s Finest #204, “Journey to the End of Hope.” A future computer asks Superman and Diana to change Earth’s doom by averting a man’s death at a protest. They save one man, but another dies — how can they know if they saved the right one? It’s clunky and the thugs they’re dealing with aren’t worth of Diana’s time, let alone the Man of Steel’s.

Last, from Brave and the Bold #105, we have “Play Now … Die Later.” A beautiful woman asks Bruce to ransom her father, a prominent pro-democracy activist in Latin America. Bruce thinks it’s a scam but as Batman discovers the man really has been kidnapped. Diana’s in this one, but she might as well have been Rene Montoya or Generic Female Cop for all the difference it makes.

Next up, Wonder Woman in China!

#SFWApro. Ilustrations by Sekowsky, Lois Lane cover by Curt Swan, all rights remain with current holders.

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Wonder Woman goes home … and then home!

Returning again, to Wonder Woman’s late Silver Age depowered years, now written, drawn and edited by Mike Sekowsky … At the end of the initial arc, Diana, having been again betrayed by a man she’s attracted to, runs off sobbing into the London night. To her surprise an Amazon appears, garbed in armor, and telling her Paradise Island’s under attack; will Diana obey her mother’s command and return? As Diana’s trying to digest this, I Ching shows up (having tracked by the simple trick of asking people if they saw her running by) and insists on going with her.

I’m really curious why Sekowsky went this route for this two-part tale. As my friend Ross has observed, bringing the Amazons back seems to fly in the face of rebooting Diana into a mortal woman. I’ve read that getting rid of the Amazons was all O’Neil’s idea, though not with any quotes or links to that effect. So maybe that was it; maybe Sekowsky figured he could get the best of both worlds or throw some variety into the mix. Like the previous arc, though, it suffers from not wanting to acknowledge the book’s history: surely I Ching walking on Paradise Island, where men are forbidden, should be a bigger deal?

In any case, Diana arrives to find the island in ruins. It turns out Ares (accompanied by Deimos, Phobos and Eris years before George Perez used them) wants the secret of traveling between Earth and whatever realm the Amazons now live in. He will then invade Earth, drench it in blood and war and restore the worship of the Olympians, with himself as top dog. Hippolyta refuses her father — oh, didn’t I mention that? Yes, this mentions out of the blue that Ares is her father and Diana’s grandfather, which everyone treats as established canon.

The war has gone badly, and Eris has trapped Hippolyta in nightmares that will only end if she gives up the secret. Diana rallies the Amazons but it’s clear they have no chance. A chance remark by I Ching inspires Diana to travel to other worlds of myth, recruiting Roland, Siegfried, the Knights of the Round Table and other heroes of legend. They, however, are burned out on heroism and refuse. Brunhilde and her Valkyries sign up, however, and eventually this inspires the men to come along. Ares’ forces go down to defeat, but in retreat he tells Diana he’s proud of her. Which I like — the Golden Age Mars was too misogynist to ever acknowledge the Amazons’ prowess as warriors. It’s a good story overall, but this new genealogy is way weird, even given this is the Earth-One Mars and not the Golden Age version.

At the end of the story I Ching stays behind to study Amazon mysticism (again they seem remarkably chill with this) and Diana returns to her boutique where she finds a young girl, Cathy, hiding from Them! In the next issue we learn “them” are Moose Momma, Pinto and Top Hat, a trio who took in the teenage runaway, then took away her clothes and money, then forced her into slavery (wearing a dog collar). The BDSM/lesbian overtones aren’t at all subtle.

When the trio show up to reclaim Cathy Diana throws them out of the boutique. They retaliate with a campaign of harassment, slashing the dresses and later setting the store on fire. Finally they show up with some toughs in tow to reclaim Cathy and force Diana into a dog collar of her own. OMG, can a martial arts mistress and former Amazon defeat these three weirdoes? No worries, a local tough guy named Tony Petrucci shows up and intimidates the muscle, then Diana handles everything else and reunites Cathy with her family (they’re local, so she can still work at the store). “Them” turn out to be thieves as well so they go to jail and Diana gets a reward.

I really like the idea this and the next issue play with of Diana as a neighborhood protector: she’s not just helping fight evil in general she’s helping clean it out of her neighborhood (the Falcon does the same in Harlem, though that’s also tied up with his role as a black hero). But relying on a Tony to save her from three ordinary women and their muscle? That’s not just sexist, it’s ludicrous.

Which is a problem with the next issue, too. A friend of Cathy’s shows up with a bullfrog she claims is her boyfriend, transformed after he dabbled in black magic and summoned up Morgana, the daughter of Morgan le Fay. I Ching identifies her as more powerful than her momma and manic-depressive to boot (the story really didn’t need that element). Morgana proceeds to unleash chaos on the neighborhood, (beautifully visualized by Sekowsky) and shrugging off Diana’s attempts to stop her. Finally I Ching uses his magic (which is a new thing — up to that point he’s been mystical, but not magical) to block Morgana working magic on Diana’s turf. Diana thinks this will turn the tables but Morgana kicks her butt in hand-t0-hand combat too. However I Ching’s magic impresses her enough she takes a powder. The frog’s girlfriend restores him to normal with a kiss.

It’s a fun story, with Morgana functioning as a Mxyzptlk-like prankster. But it’s heavy on the sexism — if only Diana had listened to I Ching, this could have been wrapped up so much faster!

Next up, Wonder Woman and Superman finally go on a date, plus other team-ups.

#SFWApro. All images by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holder.

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Exit the Amazon, enter I Ching: Wonder Woman’s depowered years begin

Following the one-shot story in Wonder Woman #178, Denny O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky launched the New Wonder Woman with a four-issue arc running #179 -182. It was apparently Mike Sekowsky’s brainchild, according to this quote on Comic Book Herald: “What they were doing in Wonder Woman, I didn’t see how a kid, male or female, could relate to it. It was so far removed from their world. I felt girls might want to read something about a super-female in the real world, something very current. So I created a new book, new characters, everything, I did up some sketches and wrote out some ideas.” I’ve heard this referred to a new character that got folded into a WW reboot (that’s what the article at the link says) but it could just as easily refer to the reboot we got (so Comics Bulletin assumes, quoting Sekowsky’s wife as saying this was his favorite book to work on). Though I imagine O’Neil added his own ideas to the mix too.

In the first issue, Steve Trevor lets himself be framed as a traitor in the hopes he’ll be recruited by Dr. Cyber, a sinister schemer — reputedly half-man, half-machine we learn in a later story — running an international crime ring (surprisingly it’s one of the few organizations from the James Bond era that doesn’t get a name or an acronym). Diana doesn’t know the truth but she’s convinced Steve’s innocent. Before she can investigate, she’s summoned back to Paradise Island: the Amazons are leaving to recharge their mystic energies and Diana must either go with them or renounce her powers. Di, of course, chooses to stay and search for Steve. Now, however, she’s jobless with no income or home but she finds a small apartment with a retail space under it; perhaps she can settle in and open some sort of store?

Then out the window she sees some thugs attack an elderly Chinese dude who kicks their butt with martial arts, even though he’s blind. With his heightened mystical awareness, he knows Diana Prince is the hero formerly known as Wonder Woman and invites her to join his personal war against Cyber, explaining Steve is already in the fight. Diana undergoes intensive martial arts training under I Ching, then one night Steve, critically injured, crashes into the dojo. It turns out Cyber wasn’t fooled and Steve’s now in a coma. Hunting down the killers, Diana and I Ching pit their skills against a factory that turns out booby-trapped robot toys. They survive, of course, and continue the hunt with the aid of Tim Trench, a grizzled PI hunting Cyber for killing his partner, Archy Miles (a reference to Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s dead partner in The Maltese Falcon, that flew over my head when I first read it).

Steve wakes up out of coma just long enough for Cyber to shoot him dead (if I didn’t know he died for sure, I’d have assumed it was a ringer). Not to worry, Diana finds  the tough, confident Trench “strong, decisive … a man!” and wonders if he can make her forget Steve. All this against the backdrop of constant attacks by Cyber, escaping her undersea base — Cyber’s a woman — and a few more deadly booby-traps. 

Finally they track Cyber to a small skiing village where it turns out every single resident is Cyber’s agent.  It’s a nice twist, as is Trench proving a rat: he accepts a payoff in gems from Cyber to work for her but absconds with the jewels after selling out Diana and Ching. They win out anyway and track Cyber to London.

In the last installment, Sekowsky gets to write as well as draw the book. Diana and I Ching escape Cyber (the classic mistake of not putting a bullet through their heads) and get transport to London from aristocratic Reginald Hyde-White. Diana picks up some more mod fashion from London boutiques (no illustrations handy, alas), finds herself falling for Reggie, and once again discovers her man is a rat. Reggie’s been Cyber’s agent all along, but he really does care for Diana, so at the climax he saves her from Cyber. Diana, however, has her heartbroken; she decks Reggie, tells I Ching to shut up with his wise insights and runs off into the night, sobbing.

As I’ve said before, this would have worked pretty well as an all-new character. Diana’s a socialite or a librarian dating a guy in military intelligence, he turns traitors, she doesn’t believe it. Then I Ching shows her how to get justice for him. The ordinary woman plunges into a world of adventure and flourishes.

As a new version of Wonder Woman, it’s flawed, partly by the creators’ enthusiasm for Out With the Old as fast as possible. We never see Diana quit military intelligence; we never learn why or why she apparently has no friends to turn to or lean on. Or why she lost all her Amazon combat training along with her super-powers. Or why she doesn’t have an apartment or any savings to fall back on. Her decision to launch a fashion boutique (and if she’s broke, how does she afford the apartment/store rental?) comes out of nowhere: we just see it in operation. It’s not a bad choice as a business — it gives Sekowsky an excuse to indulge in hip fashions — but it’s not set up well.

Then there’s I Ching. The independent superhero and crimefighter, mightiest woman in the world is now the protege of “the incredible I Ching” — he actually gets first-billed on the covers for a while (see below) even though her name is bigger. In one story I Ching sharply tells Diana not to contradict her teacher.

And I Ching doesn’t work even if this was a new series with a new protagonist. He’s a double stereotype, a blind man so awesome he’s actually better than a sighted dude, and a wisdom-spouting Chinese mystic/martial artist (he was a monk until Cyber attacked the monastery and killed his fellows). It’s not surprising that while Steve’s had a couple of resurrections since his death (here and here), nobody ever, ever tried to resurrect I Ching after his later death.

I Ching aside though, this is an entertaining story with some great visuals, just not Wonder Woman.

Next up, Diana goes home … and then goes home!#SFWApro. All art by Mike Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holder.

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LSD, spectres and Diana Prince: books read.

ACID DREAMS: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA the Sixties and Beyond by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain starts with Albert Hoffman’s creation of LSD, then jumps to the CIA’s experiments dosing civilians and soldiers to see if this new drug could be used for either brainwashing, interrogations or a weapon of war. After some CIA-tied enthusiasts brought LSD into the wider world it was variously seen as a tool for cosmic understanding, a revolutionary therapy method, a weapon of revolution (some radicals believed if enough people turned on, society would change), a recreational drug and the terrifying, mind-destroying drug in the popular press (the book points out that for many people even bad trips can be therapeutic rather than the living hell described in the media).

The book is informative but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to. Part of that is that it often feels less like a history of LSD and more like a history of various famous people who dropped acid; it’s more anecdotal than analytic. I also wish they’d gone more into how and why non-users perceived and warned against acid as a deadly threat (that was how it was presented when I was a kid). Worth reading overall, but unsatisfying.

THE SPOOK LIGHTS AFFAIR: A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini lost me early on by launching with five pages of exposition about 1890s San Francisco and the case the two protagonists are investigating (bodyguarding a debutante who’s formed an attachment for an unsuitable male). Although the mystery that follows is better (the young woman throws herself off a cliff surrounded by sparkly lights, but there’s no body at the bottom), it never really grabs me — the best bit is an annoying kibitzer who claims to be Sherlock Holmes (but as everyone knows Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls, that’s obviously impossible, right?). And then the ending, in which the female half of the duo meets a possible love interest is almost as expository as the opening. Overall, bland and unremarkable enough I skimmed a lot of it.

WONDER WOMAN: Diana Prince: Celebrating the ‘60s Omnibus by Mike Sekowsky, Denny O’Neil and several others is a massive hardback collection the Amazing Amazon’s years as a mortal woman (which I started blogging about in detail a couple of weeks back), from the transitional opening issue through Robert Kanigher’s return to the title. As Kelly Sue DeConnick says in the intro, it’s a mixed bag: great art from Sekowsky until he left the book, some good stories, but also a depowered superwoman who in multiple issues relies on men (I Ching, most notably) to save her butt. While I’m glad I bought this hardback, the paperbacks they released some years back would have worked just as well and been a lot cheaper, though not quite as nice-looking (the omnibuses put a lot of effort into making the stories as good for the eyes as possible).

#SFWApro. All rights to image (by Mike Sekowsky) remain with current holder.

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A hip Amazon who swings? She’s not your mother’s Wonder Woman!

So a couple of weeks back I became proud possessor of WONDER WOMAN: Diana Prince: Celebrating the ’60s Omnibus which collects the complete run of her non-super years (1968 through 1972). As I’ve already reviewed the TPBs (Vols 1, 2 and 3 at least) thought I’d do it this time much the way I handle rereading the rest of her run, posting about story arcs and similar obvious benchmarks. So I’ll start with a focus on Wonder Woman #178; it’s a one-shot story that doesn’t really tie into the following arc (Diana’s still Wonder Woman, for instance) but does serve to alert readers to what’s comingWonder Woman’s Rival by Denny O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky opens with police arresting Steve Trevor for the murder of someone named Alex Block; Steve claims he has an alibi — a girl he met at a hippie nightclub called the Tangerine Trolley — but he didn’t get her name and can’t locate her. At the trial we learn Block met Wonder Woman and Steve at a party where the creep told WW she was a disgusting freak, then tried to grope her. Steve decked the dude. Later an emergency needing Amazon involvement ended a Steve/WW make-out session so he went to the club and flirted with the girl.

The prosecution’s case boils down to: Steve has no alibi, he beat up the guy and killing him was the one way he could feel like a man when hanging out with Wonder Woman (who, on the stand, testifies that Steve said Block was a rat who ought to end up dead). While comic-book jurisprudence has never worried much about legal procedure, this seems exceptionally unconvincing: motive yes, but no weapon, no evidence, nothing that ties Steve to the crime. I’m sure juries convicted decorated war heroes on that kind of evidence all the time (sarcasm font). However it works, and when Lt. Prince comes to see him, Steve confesses to being pissed at hell at Wonder Woman for betraying him. Because testifying truthfully is totally not what he should expect Wonder Woman to do on the stand, right? So Di decides if she can’t save Steve as Wonder Woman, she’ll save him as Diana Prince by finding that vanished girl. Which requires visiting clubs like the Tangerine Trolley, which will require Diana to blend in so she goes clothes shopping —All of which is almost certainly modeled on Cornell Woolrich’s The Phantom Lady, a noir novel involving a wrongly accused man, an unnamed woman alibi and the guy’s lover trying to find her. And just as in Woolrich, someone’s determined to stop Diana cold. Eventually Diana does track down the girl, Tina, with the help of Steve’s best friend, Roger Seely. Unfortunately it turns out Roger is the killer, having murdered Block to cover his embezzlement of company funds. He tries to eliminate Diana and Tina to ensure Steve’s conviction stands, but of course, he doesn’t know he’s dealing with Wonder Woman …

At the end Steve, as you can see, reconciles with Wonder Woman but tells her he’s so impressed with Diana, he wants to date her (one of the few times someone’s found the secret identity more desirable than the superhero). Wonder Woman worries that if he’s going to date other woman, his next pick might be someone who isn’t her secret identity.

None of this ties in to the following Dr. Cyber arc; in fact that last page has so little relation to the changes ahead I suspect O’Neil was pulling a fast one so that we’d be blindsided. At the same time it does establish a lot of the tone they were shooting for: cool fashion, hip contemporary settings and playing up the men in Diana’s life a lot more (of course the late Silver Age Wonder Woman had already gone heavy on romance-comics tropes).

As Kelly Sue DeConick says in the excellent intro to this volume, this is one of the big problems of this era of WW. In trying to remake WW into a Realistic Modern Woman (or close as a martial-arts mistress battling an international crime syndicate can get), O’Neil and Sekowsky frequently default to sexist tropes where good as Diana Prince is, she still needs a man to be the boss (something I discussed recently). Diana gets a buzz off all her new fashion, and she delights that guys are finding her attractive; you’d think she’d never had any identity but dull, drab Lt. Prince. Which is one of my own complaints about the adventures to follow, that not only would they work better if she were a new character, the creators often treat her that way.

On the plus side, Sekowsky’s art is some of his best and will continue to be so.

I’ll be back soon with the de-powered Wonder Woman’s first story arc, as she and “the incredible I Ching” (and boy, does he bring a heaping helping of problems to the story) take on the half-man, half-machine Dr. Cyber!

#SFWApro. All art by Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holder.

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Rebooting Wonder Woman, over and over (#SFWApro)

wonderwoman202After reading Diana Prince — Wonder Woman Vols. 1, 2 and 3 I found the local library didn’t have Vol. 4 (as noted at the second link). But that only skips three stories, then I pick up with WW 202 (cover by Dick Giordano, all rights with current holder). In this, I Ching’s daughter Lu Shan has opened a dimensional gateway into Nehwon, the setting for Fritz Leiber’s adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (and which Leiber’s own stories establish as a parallel world to Earth). Diana, I Ching and Catwoman (working as Lu Shan’s villain-for-hire) stumble through into Nehwon, join forces with Leiber’s heroes (this promoted their own short-lived DC series, Sword of Sorcery) and eventually return home. It was what got me reading WW regularly (if it had two of my favorite print heroes in it, it had to be good, right?). Astonishingly I stayed after the mess of the next issue, written, like 202, by SF great Samuel Delaney.

WW 203, “The Grandee Caper,” amounts to a soft reboot of Diana’s non-powered period. Much as Denny O’Neil showed she’d left military intelligence without actually showing the decision, Delaney’s story mentions in passing that Diana sold her boutique and gave up her apartment, with no explanation why. Then we plunge into one of late-1960s comics’ painful attempts at political relevance, a “special women’s lib issue!”

With nowhere to live and no income, Diana is happy when a local department store owner, Grandee, hires her to be the new face of his fashion line. Big pay, company apartment, lots of clothes, what could go wrong? But as Diana’s friend Cathy explains, Grandee’s a sexist pig who exploits his workers: he buys all his goods from local sweatshops, thereby keeping his operation in-state and exempt from federal minimum wage laws (he takes advantage of this to underpay his female labor force). This is technically legal (I don’t know if it actually would be, but that’s the story’s stance) but they’re able to bust Grandee when it turns out—his store doesn’t meet the fire code!

The topics of labor exploitation and unsafe workplaces are certainly a worthy one (worthier than I realized as a 14-year-old), but it’s not very well suited to an adventure comic. The action we do get feels very forced (one of the feminists sets her trained guard dogs loose to give Grandee a scare), but it’s not as if the story would have worked better as a think-piece. Most of the drama comes from Diana being completely insensitive to the issues—she insists Grandee is pro-feminist, so surely Cathy has no real issue with him. And sure, Diana supports equal wages for women but that doesn’t mean she has to fight for other women, does she? She doesn’t even like other women!

Yes, that’s right. Diana’s the sensible liberal who believes all the right things, but doesn’t understand why people protest and fight for those things. Mr. Delaney, if you’re doing a story where Wonder Woman has to be awakened to the importance of fighting for women’s rights, you’re doing it wrong.

wonderwoman204smI don’t know what was going on behind-the-scenes at DC, but Delaney’s take and the whole no-powers period got wiped out the following issue (cover by Don Heck, all rights to current holder). Robert Kanigher returns for a story in which a crazed Vietnam veteran starts shooting people at random, kills I Ching (who would never be resurrected or returned, except for a small role in Grant Morrison’s Batman run a few years ago [that’s better than Lu Shan who was trapped in Nehwon and apparently never returned]), then the killer and Diana end up falling off a roof when they tussle. The guy dies, Diana wakes up amnesiac, obsessed with returning to Paradise Island (she even steals a jet plane to do it). When she finally arrives, it’s treated as if the island had never left our world, it’s just … there. Wonder Woman gets her powers back (again, there’s no hint she ever lost them) along with her memory, and Kanigher introduces Wonder Woman’s black sister, Nubia. Diana Prince gets a day job as a UN translator with a black and a Chinese roommate, plus a sexist boss who dismisses Di as a “plain Jane.” But as she speaks all known languages (which is canon), the jerk can’t very well pass her up.

In a matter of issues, this would be rebooted again… but I’ll save that for a subsequent post.

 

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