Every once in a while as a fan you stumble over something that makes you really sit up and pay attention: something so unique, or magical, or just plain weird that you feel like you need to learn everything you can about the subject.
This was the case for me with the first issue of Mike Sekowsky's Wonder Woman that I saw. I was blown away by almost every aspect of the book. The heroine of the story wasn't just different than I expected, she was entirely different: different clothes, different style, different depiction of her heroism, and an entirely different look and feel from what I was used to. As a fan in the 1970s I was used to Wonder Woman as drawn by Jose Ortiz –a kind of frumpy figure in a red-white-and-blue one-piece swimming suit. But this version of Wonder Woman was different: she was energetic, vital, strong, even kind of sexy. There was a coolness about her character that resonated.
From that initiation, I tumbled into the surprising and fascinating world of Mike Sekowsky's comics work of the early 1970s, a collection of comics that seemed to be filled with feelings of reinvention and revitalization. Sekowsky's '70s comics are ones in which well-known characters change fundamental but fascinating ways, in which old ideas are casually discarded and a new vitality is embraced. These comics represent the flowering of Mike Sekowsky as a comics auteur, a man who presented some fascinating comic books that seemed to reflect the way that he viewed the world.
Just Who The Heck Was Mike Sekowsky Anyway?
I'm going to offer you my subjective take on the career and life of Mike Sekowsky here, based on a few reminiscences and interviews about the man done over the years, most notably collected in Alter Ego #33, from 2004. You can get the dull recitation of his career on Wikipedia if you'd like.
Mike Sekowsky was born in November 1923, like many great cartoonists a Jew in New York City. He attended the School of Industrial Arts (now the High School of Art and Design), and after graduation found work for Stan Lee at Marvel, drawing such series as Apache Kid, Black Widow and Sub-Mariner. Sekowsky was a quintessential journeyman, working for numerous companies – Ziff-Davis, Quality, Ace, Better/Pines – before pretty much settling down in the mid-1950s at DC. He was, of course, the first artist for both "Adam Strange" and Justice League of America, and I'm sure Sekowsky's famous JLA run is mentioned elsewhere in this issue.
Scott Shaw describes Sekowsky's appearance like this:
This man was probably six feet four, his skin was bright pink. He was just this side of having the coloration of an albino. He had pink skin… and, on top of that, when Mike was a kid, he'd had a horrible accident. His head for caught under his parents' car, and it scalped him half-way. It actually ripped his scalp and pulled it back, and they put it back in place, but he had this big jagged scar on his bald head that came down almost down to his eyes.
When Carmine Infantino took over the executive editor's chair at DC in 1968, he instituted a series of changes that were intended to battle the ever-growing muscle that Marvel was showing at the time. Longtime editors and writers were pushed into retirement, new creators arrived at DC, and new editors and writers were appointed to fill their places. An artist himself, Infantino appreciated the unique qualities that an artist could bring to the editor's role. So he elevated three artists to editorial positions. Two were unqualified successes. Joe Orlando resurrected the EC horror books with such popular series as House of Mystery and Phantom Stranger, while Joe Kubert did a masterful job editing the war books. The third appointee to the editor's role was Mike Sekowsky. As we'll see below, Sekowsky's legacy was more muddled and complicated from that of his counterparts. Unlike his counterparts, Sekowsky chose to both write and draw most of his comics, making them a very interesting reflection of the way that he saw the world.
Forget the Old!
Probably Sekowsky's most famous solo series, and the one he most loved working on (according to his ex-wife), was Wonder Woman. It's easy now to forget how moribund the Amazing Amazon's series was when Sekowsky took it on, but one look at any of the Essential Wonder Woman volumes will remind you of that fact. Simply put, the series was a dull and lifeless comic, written for eight-year-old girls. Wonder Woman was the very definition of frumpiness, and her characterization and that of her supporting characters was thoroughly uninteresting. And she had some of the stupidest villains in comics.
Apparently this approach was no longer connecting to readers of any age. Sekowsky mentions in several letters columns during his run that WW was going to be cancelled if sales didn't pick up. That's the likely reason that Infantino gave the Wonder Woman series to Sekowsky to edit and draw, with the idea of radically changing the series. Sekowsky appointed then-hot writer Denny O'Neil to script the first four installments –likely with tight editorial control by Sekowsky. And right from the first issue by O'Neil and Sekowsky, Wonder Woman #178, it immediately was clear that readers were seeing a new and more modern take on Wonder Woman.
"Forget the old… the New Wonder Woman is here!" proclaimed that first cover, as a groovy-looking exotic beauty drew a big, red X over a picture that showed a frumpy Wonder Woman in culottes and Diana Prince in military attire. The message was clear and unmistakable: forget the boring woman you used to know, there's a new Wonder Woman in town!
Ironically, this issue isn't as much a reboot of Wonder Woman as it is one final old-fashioned adventure. In WW #178 we begin to see the beginning of the radical transformations that her character will undertake in this series, but the big changes all happen in the following issue. Instead, this issue provides a hint at a different exciting direction that the character might have gone in.
This issue shows Wonder Woman in action in a way that readers had really never seen – a character that must have thrilled long-time readers. It seems Wonder Woman's longtime paramour, Steve Trevor, has been accused of a crime he didn't commit. So WW, in her human guise of Diana Prince, updates her wardrobe and embraces her detective skills, in an attempt to free her boyfriend. We see Wonder Woman fly and flight and use her invisible plane and even be chained up for a moment (though, notably, she never uses her magic lasso). This issue has a remarkable verve and dynamism, as it embraces many classic Wonder Woman standards while having the character solve a real crime.
After years of the character fighting giant talking eggs and similar villains, this issue had to presagexr a new golden era for Wonder Woman. But a note at the bottom of the final page revealed that greater changes were to come: "The new Wonder Woman: how different is she going to be? You saw the great change in Diana Prince! Now watch what happens to Wonder Woman in future issues!
Two months later, Wonder Woman #179 brought even more massive changes.
It's common now for comics to get rebooted or reset. Heck, major changes are practically a monthly occurrence for some titles. But back in 1968, that almost never happened. Very few series changed direction abruptly, especially at staid old DC Comics. But Wonder Woman #179 broke that rule. In one issue, everything changed.
The issue opens with Steve Trevor taking on a secret mission. He has to establish himself as a traitor in order to fulfill a mission from his superiors. In a dramatic, Jack Bauer-like six-page sequence, Trevor punches his commanding officer, escapes Army MPs, and steals a car. As the sequence concludes, our narrator sets an exciting scene: "Leave the General to his thoughts, his torment… and prepare yourself for an excursion into the strange, the terrifying – prepare yourself for a wholly unique kind of imaginative experience!" Who says only Stan Lee could write great hype?
Cut to Diana Prince, who has received an urgent telepathic summons from her mother, Hippolyta. Rushing to Paradise Island in her invisible jet, Diana discovers that her former home will soon disappear from our dimension; as her mom says:
Our time on Earth grows short! For ten thousand years, we have lived here, performing the mission assigned to us… helping mankind find maturity! But now, our magic is exhausted! We must journey to another dimension, to rest and renew our powers! We are tired, Diana… the ages weigh heavily upon us! Will you come–?
Wonder Woman declines the opportunity to spend more time with her mother, family and friends. Steve Trevor needs her help, so she must stay. And so, in a moment of great sacrifice, Diana voluntarily relinquishes all of her Amazon objects. She gives up her golden lasso, magic bracelets, her Wonder Woman outfit, and her invisible plane. She will forevermore be just an ordinary woman, no longer an Amazon. "I shall be truly alone… an orphan… without friends, without a home… a stranger and alone…"
Why she's chosen to feel alone and forget her many friends in "Man's World" from the Justice League, the Army and civilian life is beyond me, but hey, this is a reboot so don't ask too many questions.
After literally turning her back on Paradise, Diana finds herself back in New York's Lower East Side, at loose ends. The neighborhood is cheap, so our heroine decides to settle in that neighborhood and open a small business. But quickly outside the window of her prospectivebusiness, Diana sees a tiny, yellow-skinned man being attacked. The man quickly fights off his attackers and reveals himself to be blind, have the improbable name of I Ching, and have been searching for Diana to help him fight the forces of the mysterious Doctor Cyber.
It turns out that despite his blindness, Ching is a great martial arts master, who teaches Diana many different combat skills in order to help in his fight. Again you have to set logic aside and just appreciate the story's flow since there's no reason that Diana lost her fighting skills just because she gave up her Amazon objects. But anyway, Diana uses her new-found abilities to search for Steve Trevor – only to have him (somewhat ironically) literally stumble back into her life one day.
It turns out that Steve has also been searching for Dr. Cyber, who has managed to mortally wound our heroine's great love. Finally, I Ching and Diana, who is now wearing a tight, short green dress and high-heeled boots rather than her WW costume, track down one of Cyber's headquarters. They defeat the evil-doers there, but the main bad guy, shown only in the shadows, escapes capture. Finally WW comes back to Steve's hospital bedside where the doctor has bad news: "He's in a deep state of shock from the beating and gun wounds! It's a miracle he's alive at all! We can't tell how extensive the damage is! There could be brain injury! He may spend the rest of his life as he is now!"
As the first real issue of the NEW Wonder Woman draws to its conclusion, Diana reflects, "I'm exhausted… and a bit numb! My life has changed so much…" Indeed. Few comics can match this one for immediate changes in a longstanding status quo. Diana Prince's life has turned almost completely upside-down – everything that had made her Wonder Woman has quickly dropped away from her life, in an incredibly swift turnabout. It's shocking, but it also has an interesting touch of reality, a tragic reminder that life can change in an instant. Now it was time to learn if the former Wonder Woman could become a wonder woman; if she could transcend the changes in her life and become a woman that people could aspire to emulate.
The next few issues bring readers the beginning of an answer to the question, as Sekowsky and writer Denny O'Neil deliver some James-Bond inspired action to Diana's world. Along with estimable hardboiled detective Tim Trench, Diana and I Ching find themselves on a globe-spanning adventure to find and defeat the evil Dr. Cylvia Cyber and her all-female army. Dr. Cyber is an interesting figure. In some ways she's a female version of James Bond's nemesis Blofeld, but in other ways she has her own unique sense of style. There's a wonderful scene in issue #181 where we watch Dr. Cyber take Trench on a tour of her underground stronghold. There's a sense that Cyber commands every inch of the place, and her outfit – a long-sleeved tank-top, skimpy cut-legged skirt and bare feet – implies an interesting sort of evil sexiness to the character. There's something electric about the sexy and powerful way that Sekowsky draws this character, making Dr. Cyber one of his most notable co-creations.
As a woman with a very strong sense of herself, Dr. Cyber is an ideal counterpart for Diana Prince, who is still having her own existential crisis; as Diana states in issue #181:
Every time I put on a combat outfit – I remember the costume I used to wear! The Amazon garb I once donned to become Wonder Woman! Though I've been a mortal for just a few months, it seems like ages! Ages since I had nothing to fear… since I was tireless and nearly invulnerable! I keep asking myself… if I traded too much for my humanity!
Cyber's intense self-confidence is the counterpart for Diana's personal struggles, making the two women into ideal enemies for each other.
Oh, and in issue #180, Steve Trevor is needlessly brought back to Dr. Cyber's island, only to get shot trying to escape. But Trevor is old news. Diana hangs with I Ching and Tim Trench now. Thus we don't really ever get any updates on Trevor in the series from that point forward, though we do find out off-screen that Steve has been killed. The letters page in Wonder Woman #184 states, "Steve is dead! Yes, [Diana] is attend his funeral – but as it was only for members of the family and very close friends only, we did not intrude on their grief by showing it." In a later letters page Sekowsky would admit that he found Steve Trevor to be thoroughly boring, so he killed the character off.
It's also interesting to note that Diana never expresses regret for not staying behind on Paradise Island, even though her reason for staying in our world is no longer relevant. Despite her existential ponderings above, Diana seems to have gotten comfortable in her skin and on our world. Indeed, the next time she has the chance to remain on Paradise Island, Diana doesn't even consider staying behind.
Issues 182 and 183 bring Diana back to Paradise Island, for a battle royale against the gods. It's an exciting and fun two-parter, but seems to rob the storyline of Diana's new life of much of its momentum – after all, a lot of what made her such an interesting woman is that she had lost her moorings in her old world. She had been learning to live away from her familiar surroundings and become her own person, but a return to spending time with the Amazons seems to make Diana just a little less self-sufficient. On the other hand, three very positive changes happen in this two parter: I Ching stays behind on Paradise Island, thereby writing that annoying character out of the storyline. Secondly, we see Diana as a leader, marshalling forces and leading an army. She's obviously no wallflower in this story but rather a relentless and furious warrior. And lastly, as I mentioned above, Diana has come to believe that her real future is away from her comfortable surroundings, that she could best become the woman that she aspires to become by letting go of her past.
In WW #184, an otherwise stupid story about white slavery, we see Diana as a protector of innocent women and explicitly reject the sort of bondage that was common in her '40s stories. It's interesting how Sekowsky continually kind of stumbled over the kinds of scenes that really had iconic power for Wonder Woman. She embraces femininity but rejects the bonds that kept women down. Unfortunately, in WW #184, Diana requires the help of a group of men to defeat an ordinary group of humans – a huge come-down from defeating Ares's hordes. It's enough to make a reader wonder if she's having problems with self-confidence.
I Ching returns in Wonder Woman #186, suddenly knowing how to use magic against Morgana the witch, another sexy Sekowsky creation who causes havoc in Diana's world. Whatever problems Diana was having with self-confidence in the previous issue seem to have disappeared, as she shows real self-assurance in helping yet another group of women battle a rather wacky heroine-villainess. Morgana was a fun character, apparently well-received by readers, and was brought back by Sekowsky in an issue of Adventure Comics featuring Supergirl.
WW #187-189 present one of the finest stories of the Sekowsky era, a rollicking spy story set around Hong Kong and "Red China" that involves I Ching's angry daughter, a vicious Diana Prince, the attempted revenge and apparent death of Doctor Cyber, and more action than appeared in a year of Wonder Woman stories under the previous Kanigher administration. If there's one story arc that seems to exemplify the heights that the Sekowsky run could reach, it's one. In these three issues, I Ching finally gathers some depth, while Diana shows a mature and wonderful sense of self-confidence. Moreover, uniquely for a story by Sekowsky, all the little subplots wrap up quite nicely by the end.
Issues 191 was a reprint, but issues 190 and 192 bring a fantasy adventure that also represents Sekowsky at his peak. In that storyline, Sekowsky channels a bit of Lord of the Rings to present a spectacular swords-and-sorcery epic with Diana at the center. It's quite astonishing to see how much work Sekowsky put into these two issues: the portrait of Castle Skull in issue 192 is breathtaking in its depth of detail. We also continue to see Diana at her heroic best: strong, confident, intelligent, a born leader; who needs the tiara and swimsuit when Wonder Woman can be this wonderful?
The rest of Sekowsky's run brings Diana back to Earth for more prosaic adventures. WW #193 tells the story of a man in Diana's neighborhood who brings harm on others through poorly-thought-out pranks. It's a better story than it sounds like it is. Issue #194 is a dull take on A Tale of Two Cities, though it's interesting to see Diana take a European vacation all alone – surely an odd thing for a single woman to do in 1971 (and Diana complains of sore feet in the story – definitely not a problem she had when she was wearing her high heeled boots when superpowered). WW #195 is a silly haunted house story enlivened by some gorgeous Wally Wood inks (Sekowsky could really draw women, so the combination of Sekowsky and Wood produced an unforgettably gorgeous Diana Prince). And Sekowsky's run wrapped up with an entertaining story in Wonder Woman 196, as Diana saves an ambassador from a small European nation.
Looking at it as a whole, it's striking just how spectacular Mike Sekowsky's run on Wonder Woman really was. He took a comic that was apparently doomed for cancellation and turned it into an exciting, bold and energetic comic book that seemed to represent some of the best aspirations of the then-burgeoning Women's Lib movement. Sekowsky's Diana Prince was a truly liberated woman –
an important concept for the time – intelligent, powerful, self-confident, self-sufficient, and, yes, absolutely gorgeous. A recent article on the Comics Journal website described these comics as desultory, but I find them to be anything but halfhearted and aimless. It's clear that Mike Sekowsky was investing a tremendous amount of energy into revitalizing the Amazon. He succeeded completely.
Next week: Mike Sekowsky takes on the Metal Men – and makes them abandon their metallic ways!