Grant Morrison delivered one of the best Superman stories ever with All-Star Superman. His long run on the Dark Knight infused Batman comics with more energy and heart than they’d seen in years. However, his take on Wonder Woman misses the mark.
Wonder Woman is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes in the world. Along with Superman and Batman, she forms part of DC Comics’ holy trinity. But, for years, it’s felt like she’s lacked a strong creative direction. Most people know her as a symbol, a lasso-wielding standard-bearer for the idea that women can do anything as well as men and that they deserve equal rights. That aspect of the character has largely withered in her regularly published adventures. She still gets referred to as an aspirational figure, but the exact specificity of her specialness has become bland. She’s more like a female version of Superman in some ways—stronger and more compassionate than the average person—but differentiated by a natural affinity for combat.
Wonder Woman wasn’t always like this. The subtext of Diana’s creation in 1941 by psychologist William Moulton Marston was bondage. Marston thought up of Wonder Woman as a hero who’d triumph with a message of peace and love, and he espoused the virtues of submission to signify nurturing and trust. Many of Diana’s earliest adventures had sequences where she or others were bound. These panels showed bondage and submission as a mode of play or a way to defuse aggression and create trust.
Written by Morrison with art by Yanick Paquette, Nathan Fairbairn and Todd Klein, Wonder Woman: Earth One goes straight back to the character’s benevolent kink origins, aiming to represent them for the modern day. Paquette’s art is the saving grace in this comic, giving Diana a sultry heavy-lidded look that harkens back to her 1940s iteration. The single-volume story opens with Hippolyta, queen of the Amazon warrior women, being leashed and degraded after a capture by Hercules and his army. Hippolyta chokes the demigod to death and and frees her sisters, vowing to leave all men behind and create a better society.
The familiar beats from various Wonder Woman origin stories throughout the decades appear here. As in the recent New 52 version of Wonder Woman’s origin, the princess is a product of two warring legacies, and Hippolyta has hidden her daughter’s true lineage from her. (It’s worth mentioning that Morrison talked about the ideas in this story for at least seven years, long before the 2011 New 52 reboot.)
The rest of the comic feeds off of the classic origin story: Diana is forbidden from participating in the perennial games of skill and strength, yet does so anyway while wearing a mask. A soldier named Steve Trevor crashes on the Amazons’ island paradise, piquing Diana’s interest in the Man’s World that lays beyond the horizon.
Diana’s impetuous wanderlust brings her to that outside world, where she’s stunned by the rampant aggression and inequalities she sees, especially as it applies to women. Meanwhile, her mother sends Medusa to get her wayward daughter back home. Diana returns to forestall further disaster and stands trial before the Amazons for her transgressions.
Morrison brings thematics to the foreground in Wonder Woman: Earth One. This is a metaphorical exploration first, a family drama second and a worlds-colliding adventure last. There are no fisticuffs in this story. But it doesn’t feel like it plays to Morrison’s strengths, which let him weave fresh mythic interpretations out of long-lived franchise characters by coming at their aggregated histories with new angles. Here, it feels like he’s aping the stilted Golden Age cadences of the Marston Wonder Woman stories, adding touches of Silver Age goofiness and positioning them against Bronze Age paranoia. It doesn’t cohere well and comes across as wincingly clumsy at times.
Take this version of Steve Trevor, whose crotch she grabs when tending to him.
He’s wounded and is the damsel for much of the story, which falls in line with some of the way the character’s been used over the years. However, he’s a black man here, and the reason for that choice seems to be a very heavy-handed soliloquy he gives near the end of the book:
Wonder Woman: Earth One feels overly engineered and comes across as if it’s designed to be reaction and commentary. Diana comes across as a jumble of tropes: rebellious teen, nurturing healer, shit-talking royal and benevolent domme. She’s been all of those things since her inception, but that last aspect of Wonder Woman fell away from the character. Morrison’s attempts to restore sexual themes and kink to the character feel fumbly. The same-sex relationships on Paradise Island and body positivity messaging that comes through Diane’s new best friend Etta Candy feel well-intentioned but don’t add anything to Diana as a whole.
Diana submits to loving authority here and demands similar submission from others. But the authority to which she submits, the haughty overprotective isolationism of her mother, doesn’t get sufficiently interrogated. She ultimately subverts that but doesn’t come into any ethos of her own.Part of Marston’s original prompt for Wonder Woman was, essentially, that men fuck things up too much and that women know better than men. But, when Diana disses a bunch of soldiers by calling them girls, it undermines the very redemptive symbolism Morrison is trying to invoke. The Amazons are all ‘perfect’ physical specimens who make light of Etta Candy’s curvier frame. It’s a particularly bitchy beat for denizens of a paradise to hit and another thing that makes Wonder Woman: Earth One come across as a muddle. It’s beautiful to look at but ultimately empty of any kind of special spark.