Wonder Woman has never been afforded the same range as her contemporaries. She’s never been allowed to evolve or experiment the way that Batman, Superman, or even Green Lantern have been able. Perhaps that has something to do with her failed reinvention in the 1970s, but, whatever the reason, Wonder Woman stories have largely stuck close to either her feminist heroism, her romantic complications, or her mythological roots (roughly in that order). Even when Diana has had her origins changed or ventured into new worlds, her stories have tended to be retellings, writers attempting to tweak and tinker to match her perfection, to fix what they see as flawed.
With the unlikely revival of DC’s Black Label line, we get a chance to see a creative, auteur take on the Amazon Princess in Wonder Woman: Dead Earth.
Awakened(?) hundred of years after the final bombs fell, Diana finds her role as protector of man and earth a failure. Piecing together fractured memories and deprived of much of her strength, Wonder Woman sets about doing what she does best, fighting hard because she is tender.
The cast surrounding Diana is limited. They are plenty good for the issue, but they generally stick to a single character trait, which, in fairness, is about all they can do to avoid fully devolving into beasts under the harsh stresses of their cruel, subsistence lifestyle. It’s Wonder Woman after the end of the world, in exactly the awesome way that you’d expect. I’m not sure that it automatically follows that society would fall back into this form in this particular apocalypse, but the book is distinctly in conversation with classic dystopian, ‘after-the-end’ stories and it leans into the conventions of the form. The result is that sweet spot of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and dark feudal fantasy that we 21st century types love so dearly as applied to Wonder Woman, a character whose mix of Greco-Roman influence and utopian soft sci-fi make her well suited to the fusion but also plays up the wrongness of it all.
Like many creators before him, Daniel Warren Johnson seeks to find his own take on Diana’s mythology—that is the parts that are uniquely hers, not the actual Greek myths—and this is possibly the most interesting element of the story. Modern Wonder Woman stories (especially, though not exclusively or necessarily pejoratively those by men) often make Diana’s origin a referendum on the isolationist nature of Themyscira. Johnson looks at this element but manages to avoid many of the usual pitfalls by neither centering the issue nor giving both sides validity. In fact, if anything, both answers—Paradise Island and man’s world—seem unhealthy. For her limited presence, Hippolyta is a constant presence over the story and, rather than the communal or Olympian emphasis, Themyscira is presented as hers alone. This is a complicated but narratively rich choice that highlights the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the Wonder Woman origin and demonstrates Diana’s greatest strength and, in this case, greatest weakness: her perfection, her insistence that people can be more, regardless of the circumstances.
Through Hippolyta and another changed but familiar face, Johnson looks at the role of trauma in Diana’s narrative and it is really something. It will take time before we see exactly how the series will handle this delicate subject, however, the set up in this first issue is fascinating and affecting. Seeing Themyscira as a seemingly fearful, reaction to sexual and relational abuse would not do in a regular Wonder Woman story, but here it makes for a distinctive take on the isolationist paradise and protective mother tropes.
But, as interesting as the use of her classical roots is, and the limited use of her classical roots is, neither Zeus nor Hera nor grey-eyed Athena is the deity who feels most influential on this take on Wonder Woman. Though not to such an extent that it becomes a serious detriment, it does feel like there are a lot of Christian concepts being passed into the story, quite possibly without meaning to. Hippolyta never explicitly uses Edenic language but her talk of a “broken world” definitely feels tinged by the cultural omnipresence of the Christian Fall and Diana herself gets an interesting but somewhat uncanny interpretation that leans closer to Christian messianic tradition than any Hellenic conception of hērōs.
When push comes to shove though, Diana is front and center, the core of this story. Her compassion and regret are what elevate this beyond being just another post-apocalyptic fantasy. There’s no hesitation against killing monsters, nor is there the bloody voyeurism of strength worship in her writing. Everything she does is framed around saving everyone and mourning where she can’t. Her inhumanity, given particular notice here, makes her feel like a monument, ageless and powerful, with the cost of every life she failed to save trapped somewhere in the clay. It’s not Platonic Wonder Woman, no, but it’s the kind of strong Elseworlds take that she has been so often deprived.
But, if you know anything of Johnson’s work, you’ll know that he’s beloved not only for his very distinctive voice but for the force of his artwork. Aided by Mike Spicer‘s colors, the book absolutely lives up to Johnson’s reputation, though with particular focus on critical panels. The average quality of the book is still above normal, but there is no denying that you know when Johnson and Spicer put the extra care into a panel or layout.
The aesthetic of the book could be described as simple but scarred. Thick, fluid lines map out the basics of the characters and their surroundings and beautiful but flatly applied colors fill them in. Then Johnson shows you the scars, the nicks and scratches and wounds that give this series its life. Diana’s skin doesn’t have that porcelain perfection that some artists draw her with. She’s beaten and wearied, but, most of all, she looks thick skinned to begin with. There’s a specificity to this version of Wonder Woman right in her face, to say nothing of the interesting differences in attire that Johnson provides her.
Though the world after the end is not incredibly original, Johnson keeps this a visual spectacle by including a slew of great creatures, each worthy of a Labor, to pit Wondy against. Even the simplest among them has an interesting weight and personality to them and their colors always play against the scenes they’re in cleverly.
Dead Earth‘s first chapter can be very dark, in all respects. A lot of the early book uses muddy, natural tones, while the latter half sticks to sandy glows, but there’s always something to break it up and the sheer excitement and musicality that Johnson has associated with himself comes through in the colors. It really is a beautiful way to look at this old pulp heroine. Amidst a murky, grave-filled planet she doesn’t belong on, Wonder Woman is always a caring glance or an epic sock in the jaw away from brilliant Silver Age+ color smashing through the genre she’s found herself in. You can feel the cult of her personality in the colors and it’s fantastic!
Honestly, there’s very little wrong with this book artistically. Some won’t dig Johnson’s style, which is fine, but it’s not something that could have been defended against. Indeed, the only thing I can really say is that I’ve seen Johnson bring a more consistent wow factor, but considering how many huge moments there are, from dramatic splashes to small but effective panels, that doesn’t really strike me as anything that could dissuade one from picking this book up.
The oversized Black Label format serves this issue well, not only in its unique aspect ratio and greater showcase for Johnson’s art, but in the very experience of picking it up. It feels foreign and powerful, the colors of the cover giving it a certain role-play value, like a scroll of lost knowledge. The art and colors are well delivered and the paper is of a nice quality that both feels good in your fingers and also doesn’t glare too much. Especially with the obvious love that the editors and production team have for Johnson’s art, it’s also so nice not to have advertisements. All these lovely features bump the price up to $6.99, which might dissuade some from picking this up on a whim, but you’re getting over forty pages, so it’s actually cheaper than the same amount of a normal comic, even with the larger dimensions.
Wonder Woman: Dead Earth delivers exactly what it promises: Wonder Woman in a post-apocalyptic world, as envisioned by Daniel Warren Johnson. That means you get the raw, brutal style and the personal, caring character moments that Johnson is known for alongside the inherent appeal of this chocolate and peanut butter concept. In places it could benefit from making a slightly harder stamp on the concept and its Christian undertones feel out of place, but there’s a strong Wonder Woman narrative embedded deep within the dystopian flavor. The art is predictably gorgeous and the colors are an absolute gift, a surprising cherry on top of something you already knew would look great. It even winds up being very affordable for the amount and quality of content it provides. It won’t necessarily appeal to readers who aren’t interested in Wonder Woman, post-apocalyptic tales, or Johnson’s artwork but it might make you realize that you are interested in one of those things and it delivers a taste of each to their fans.
Dead Earth – Book One doesn’t deviate from expectations quite enough to slide into the category of a must read, but it does everything it sets out to well and with notable quality. If you have interest, this first chapter is well worth the price tag and it sets up a world that I’m already excited to see develop beyond its foundations.
Wonder Woman: Dead Earth – Book One is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.