Since the death of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, in 1947, DC has notoriously found the character rather difficult to handle. Since she hasn’t necessarily been placed into the correct creative hands over the years, there’s not much wonder as to why (no pun intended). The digital-first series Sensation Comics thus provides an opportunity that the character has never seen before: an opening for a diversity of creators to have a crack at her, one of the ultimate feminist icons. Now, 14 of the first issues are now in print for collective reading.
Ideally, Sensation Comics is meant to work as a welcome mat for new Wonder Woman readers. Most of the stories are self-contained, none are connected to anything but the most basic Wonder Woman canon, and the creators can do near anything they wish. However, Sensation Comics suffers missteps from the very first story and on.
The series opens up with a two-parter by Gail Simone and Ethan Van Sciver. Simone, the most famous female Wonder Woman writer to date, was a natural choice to include on the series. While Van Sciver doesn’t share such an obvious connection to the character, he draws Wonder Woman with an athletic body and heroic poise that is highlighted by brilliantly curly black hair. In theory, Simone and Van Sciver’s story should at the very least be memorable. In execution, it turns out not so much.
Naturally, the first story in any collection defines the rest of the series. This is why it so odd that Simone makes the choice to put Wonder Woman in the middle of Gotham City. Wonder Woman, Simone knows as well as anyone, is an Amazon with a home on the utopian, all-female Themyscira (or Paradise Island). She has her own legacy, including her own tools, partnerships, and villains. So why is she in Batman’s city, to team up with one of Batman’s “family” members, fighting the entire catalogue of Batman’s villains? She even uses W-shaped ninja stars to match Batman’s batarangs.
Simone attempts to explain Diana’s philosophy as a contrast against Batman’s, but this doesn’t stop one from feeling suspicion that the story is rooted in an editorial misdirection. This is, after all, the publisher that has spent much of the last few years trying to match most of their 52 titles as closely to Batman as possible, regardless of each series’ individual needs. In this case, readers get the most iconic female hero as defined by DC’s dark prince rather than by her own merits or 75-year history.
Nine more creative teams have the opportunity to make up for the first team’s errors, but very few step up to the plate in the ways they should. “Morning Coffee” by Ollie Masters and Amy Mebberson and “Ghosts and Gods” by Neil Kleid, Dean Haspiel, and Allan Passalaqua both include Batman villains. No iconic or intriguing new villains are introduced for Wonder Woman nor are there very many thought-provoking new concepts for her to battle. At best, some of the themes are relevant to what women (or little boys, in the case of “Defender of Truth” by Amanda Deibert, Cat Staggs and John Rauch) face today, but at worst Wonder Woman responds to these challenges by preaching at them or simply striking out.
This isn’t to say that some creators didn’t try to use the Wonder Woman canon to their advantage. However, none of them seemed to be able to nail down the best parts they could have worked on. Jason Bischoff, David A. Williams, and Wendy Broome show ambition in “Brace Yourself” by making an alteration to Diana’s origin story—she must defeat her mother Hippolyta in combat in her order to gain her second bullet-proof bracelet—but it makes no sense in comparison to the Amazons’ peaceful philosophy. Marcus To draws a fantastic Wonder Woman with a kindly, open face; however, his talents are wasted in his, Ivan Cohen, and Andrew Dalhouse’s “Taketh Away”, which is a borderline offensive rehash of Denny O’Neil’s 1970s depowering of Wonder Woman into Diana Prince (both creative teams lack female creators, which doesn’t feel like a coincidence). The before-mentioned “Ghosts and Gods” is the only story that contains Etta Candy, but she’s just a warm body for Deadman to possess in order to team up with Wonder Woman against Ra’s al Ghul.
Then there are structural problems in nearly every story. Staggs’ art, complemented by Rauch’s colors, is great in “Defender of Truth”, but writer Deibert is unable to connect the Wonder Woman villain, Circe, to outside themes she is clearly much more interested in exploring. Sean E. Williams in “Bullets and Bracelets” takes the much-awaited idea of Wonder Woman as a rockstar and wastes it on her ranting about feminist concepts rather than building her a character arc in relation to them. One story had me screaming about the easily-fixable mistakes in New York City geography.
But! There are a few bright spots in the darkness.
Gilbert Hernandez and Rauch’s “No Chains Can Hold Her” is both the only story that doesn’t take itself too seriously and one that I would give to a young girl to introduce her to Wonder Woman. It borrows quite a bit from the Golden Age and isn’t afraid to lend full pages to slapstick gags between Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Mary Marvel. While it doesn’t dwell in either Wonder Woman’s canon or feminist philosophy, it still has an all-girl team-up and Wonder Woman comes out looking tough rather than the icky trying-to-make-her-vulnerable shtick too many recent creators have tried.
Marguerite Sauvage is one of the most talented female up-and-coming artists in the industry right now with “Bullets and Bracelets” laying proof to that. Sauvage’s history mostly goes back to advertising and fashion magazines, which is why every character she draws has such an on-point wardrobe. Her pencils are delicate, her characters expressive, and her colors striking. Sauvage’s work is gorgeous and Sensation Comics with all its focus on the most famous female superhero may have been the perfect platform to launch her career (months after both the digital and print releases of her Sensation Comics issue, she drew the second story in this year’s Thor annual).
Amy Mebberson has a very different style, which leans to the more cartoonish and humorous side. Despite the Catwoman inclusion, she and writer Masters make a great team in “Morning Coffee” and provide a genuinely enjoyable read. Also, she draws a damn good dragon. For her, too, Sensation Comics works as a great platform to show off her work to a larger readership.
Finally, Bechko and Hardman created “Dig for Fire,” the most innovative Wonder Woman story in the Sensation Comics collection. The only travesty is that readers have to wait so long to reach it. Wonder Woman enters Apokolips—a dystopian planet that is opposed to her utopian home, how’s that for a brilliant contrast?—to save two of her Amazonian sisters. Along the way, she uses her Lasso of Truth several times in gentle, compassionate manners and only uses violence as a last resort. “Dig for Fire” is dark, but it shows Wonder Woman as smart, savvy, and, most importantly, truly highlights what kind of hero she is. Bechko and Hardman understand the character in a way that many do not.
Sensation Comics Volume 1 should be a collection that one would recommend to their friends or young relatives if they wanted an introduction to Wonder Woman. However, with the several missteps that are made in the treatments of the character, her history, and philosophy, this is far from the best book one can choose from the shelves as a place to begin with her. The collection works far better as a showcase of artists with widely varying styles, each impressive to examine. The book does not serve Wonder Woman the way it should, but this is perhaps mitigated by featuring newer female creators in its pages. In terms of Diana’s philosophy, that isn’t at all a bad thing.