The Joker: Devil’s Advocate

It seems like it’s been a while since I’ve read a trade that featured the Joker prominently.  Sure, he pops up every once and a while here and there, but he hasn’t been the star for quite some time.

Thankfully, when he makes his comeback, he does it in a big way.

The Joker: Devil’s Advocate opens with a handful of scenes of unconnected people, all in the process of mailing an envelope (hardly a dramatic opening, to be sure).  As soon as they lick the stamps, however, they immediately begin seizing and wind up dead, a grotesque smile splayed across their faces.

There’s no doubt about it, the Joker’s nerve toxin is to blame.

Cut to a scene of the Joker, raising hell in a post office as he angrily questions why he wasn’t chosen as an honoree for the “comedians” special edition stamps.  He starts shooting up the place, killing anyone he pleases, until Batman and Robin intervene and throw him in jail.

It’s a rather ridiculous opening plot, but this is the Joker:  Somehow, it just works.

As the Joker goes through the motions of being read his rights, given a lawyer, etc., we’re given the first hint that all may not be as it seems.

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I was unsure how to take this comment.  After all, it wouldn’t be out of line for the Joker to feign innocence while he sends the police on a wild goose chase.  Still, something about the crime just felt off.

The story that unfolds is enthralling, but the true star of the comic is Joker himself, in all of his unhinged glory.  The D.A. makes the bold decision to forgo the typical insanity plea and try the Joker for his crimes.  Unsurprisingly, he makes a farce of the courtroom and is ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death.

Of course, the Joker takes this news in stride, acknowledging the celebrity this sentence will bring him.

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He pushes for a quick execution, threatening to sue Gotham City should they delay the matter.  All the while Batman is hunting down clues, convinced that the Joker has been convicted of the one crime he didn’t commit.

Ultimately Batman discovers the true culprit, a throwaway character who gained access to Joker’s nerve toxin through an old storage unit, and the man is brought up on charges.  The stay of execution call is made with mere seconds to spare, but the Joker seems unconcerned with the whole situation.

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It would seem the Joker has won in this case, escaping death and returning to the familiar walls of Arkham.  As the comic closes however, he receives a visit from Batman in his cell.  Batman points out that Joker owes his life to him, a debt Joker undoubtedly doesn’t wish to be in.

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While I didn’t care much for the “Who actually committed the crime?” side of the story, I loved the Joker’s portrayal.  Everything about him in this story felt organic, which is more than a little terrifying given how abnormal all of his reactions are.  Unconcerned with death, desirous of fame and glory, the Joker is a complete enigma.  It’s a difficult feat to write a character who’s totally unpredictable yet make their actions fit their personality, but this story pulls it off perfectly.  I’ve read plenty of Joker stories at this point, and while it’s easy to see why Joker is an intriguing character study to many, this comic proves why he’s a fan favorite.  His dark humor and maniacal actions combine to make an entirely unique and unforgettable character, and one whom you want to survive only because you want to read about more of his exploits.

I was thoroughly surprised how much I liked this comic, and particularly enjoyed the subtle characterizations that helped show the unstable nature of the clown prince of crime.  Joker always makes for a fascinating read, and while I cringe at many of his crimes merely due to their sheer brutality, they are completely absorbing and leave me wanting more.

Does this make me crazy or a little unhinged? Perhaps.  Then again, aren’t we all?

Aaaaand now I’m having serious doubts about myself after having typed that last line.  Okay, Jess, time to step away from the comics for a little while…

-Jess

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The Flash: Dead Heat

Well, it’s finally happened.

After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and claims that I would never turn my back on Barry Allen, I’ve officially converted:

I like Wally West.

Okay, so that’s not exactly the grand proclamation it could be, but it’s still a pretty big deal in my book.  I wasn’t really a fan of him in all of the post-Crisis stories, wishing and hoping Barry would somehow return.  Wally seemed whiny and self-obsessed, overly critical of those around him and all-around not what I look for in a superhero.

Slowly though, he won me over.  It began with the stories collected in Flash: The Return of Barry Allen,  and ended here, with Wally taking center stage alongside a slew of other speedsters to defeat a menacing foe.  I’ve finally started to see him for the superhero he really is.

If this was a cheesy romantic comedy this would be the point when the I’d have a sudden flash of realization, acknowledging that Wally West, the guy in front of me has been great all along, and I would run to him while an overused 90’s pop song is playing in the background.  Except, you know, he’s a fictional character and I’m not completely crazy…

Though the fact that I even thought about this might not support that fact.

Aaaaand now I’m getting distracted by the image of me running towards the frickin’ FLASH because come on. He could run around the earth in the time it would take me to run ten feet.

Sometimes I wonder if I have A.D.D. Other days I think I’m just bonkers.

Anyway.  The point of that little rant was that yes, I’m pro-Wally now.

In Dead Heat, all the known speedster’s superpowers inexplicably disappear.  All, that is, except Wally’s.  The heroes come together to figure out why that is, and ultimately discover that a powerful man named Savitar desires full access to the speed force, and is stripping others of their power so that he may keep it all to himself.

(There was clearly a gap in the storyline from the last Flash trade I had read, but luckily the comic does an excellent job of summarizing everything that’s gone on, explaining the speed force, how it gives these heroes their power, etc.  I never once felt lost or confused, so for that I’m grateful).

In order to defeat Savitar, Flash is joined by a host of other speedy heroes, creating a rather impressive group:

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Seeing characters from the past, present, and future, all united by a common power source and all determined to stop a single villain was exciting, and the inclusion of classic characters like Jay Garrick and Johnny Quick lent the story credibility.  Had this group been comprised of modern or futuristic characters only, I think something would have been lost in the story.

As fiercely as this group battles, they are simply no match for Savitar.  Ultimately the answer comes from Iris Allen (when exactly she came back I have no idea, but there she is), who had spent some time in the future and knows the outcome of the battle.  As she tells Wally, “You can’t defeat him.  Give him what he wants.”

Of course, Flash is smart enough to know Iris doesn’t mean to surrender, and instead leads Savitar closer and closer to the speed force, until ultimately both are able to cross the barrier into it.

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Savitar ultimately gets his wish, but this also means that he is no longer a threat to the world.

Of course, that still leaves the little problem of Flash getting back to Earth from here.  Citing love for his girlfriend as his driving force (and managing to make it sound sweet, not corny), Wally is able to return from the speed force and be reunited with his loved ones.

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Or is he?

That certainly doesn’t look like Wally West.  His costume is all wrong and he’s missing his signature ginger mane.  Who then, is this guy?  The comic ends at this pivotal moment, so I can only hope that the continuation of this story is collected on “the shelf.”

With my luck, they’ll go and do something crazy like kill off Wally West just as I’m starting to like him.  I might cry.

The story itself was great, but it was Wally’s characterization that really stuck out to me. He is finally written as a funny, relatable character, rather than the constant buzzkill he was before.  One of my favorite scenes in the entire trade, and what really cemented my feelings towards him, occurred on the first few pages.

Wally, sitting down to a nice lunch with his girlfriend Linda, inadvertently mentions the dreaded “M” word in passing: Marriage.

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Awkwardness ensues as they both try to change the subject.  Wally is inwardly cursing himself as Linda does the one thing guys dread most: she actually wants to talk about it.

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Luckily for Wally, before the conversation goes any further, he’s saved by a most unlikely source.

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This scene was hilarious and quite frankly, absolutely perfect.  What guy hasn’t been in the midst of the dreaded “talk” and secretly wished that ninjas would drop down from the sky, just so he’d have a reason to end the conversation?  I knew from this page alone that Wally’s character would be a little more light-hearted in this trade than in past stories, and I was extremely grateful for it.

I found myself wishing this trade was longer, something I hardly ever think when Wally West is present.  I guess I’m officially a Wally West convert, and I can only hope that my timing isn’t terribly off and that I’m starting to like him just as his run as the Flash comes to an end.

Fingers crossed.

-Jess

Batman: Riddler – The Riddle Factory

I love short little trades that I can breeze through on my lunch break, but at the same time it can sometimes be difficult to find enough to say about such a brief story.  Batman: Riddler – The Riddle Factory is one such instance.  This single-story trade opens with the Riddler hosting a pirated television show titled, “The Riddle Factory”, in which he allows his guests to answer riddles under a level of duress.  Once all the answers are obtained, they provide the answer to the episode’s main riddle, which ultimately sheds light on a lascivious secret of one of Gotham’s elite.

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Other than breaking some broadcasting rules, Riddler isn’t exactly breaking the law per se, but the effects of his shows leave numerous people dead, as they are unable to live with the revelation of their darkest secrets.

Batman is investigating the case, convinced that Edward Nigma has a more sinister plan than simply gaining notoriety on an illicit television show.  His detective skills ultimately lead him to find that Riddler is searching for a long-lost hidden fortune of a long-dead mob boss, and that his television stunts are merely a theatrical front to distract the police from his real pursuit.

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Of course, Batman manages to get one step ahead of Riddler at the last second, and as Nygma thinks he has escaped he is arrested and taken into custody.

And so the trade ends.  Riddler is behind bars once again, and his television exploits are over.

I had high hopes for this trade when I began reading.  It had the makings of a thoroughly entertaining story, and yet it fell flat.  Details of the Riddler’s actual plot are glossed over on one page, with writer Matt Wagner choosing to focus on the television aspect in more detail.  I didn’t have a problem with those details, as they were certainly more unique and engaging than the hidden mob-money angle, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity.  Riddler’s television spots could have been used for any number of purposes, and “The Riddle Factory” was certainly unique enough to carry the trade.  Instead, it felt as though Wagner had a great premise for a story but couldn’t decide what to do with it, so he slapped on a separate, cliched story to tie it all together.

What’s more, Batman’s brief analysis of Nygma lacked the deeper understanding I loved so much in previous Batman issues, and left the story feeling a bit flat and one-dimensional.  This story had plenty of potential, but it just wasn’t fully realized.

Luckily for me, this trade (much like Riddler’s television career) was brief.

-Jess

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

I continue to be surprised by how many details of classic Disney movies I don’t remember.

I thought I had watched this film countless times as a child. Who knows, maybe I did.  I know that I read the first book at least, though admittedly I can’t remember when exactly.  Still, I was surprised by how many details of this movie I had forgotten.  There were entire scenes that, although they felt passingly familiar, I couldn’t recall for the life of me.  Is my memory failing or did I just not watch this movie as often as I once thought?

Although I may not have remembered every detail, that might not necessarily have been a bad thing.  I was once again able to approach a story I thought I knew very well with a fresh perspective.  I always worry that my adult eyes with find flaws in a film that I had previously enjoyed, and that the magic I felt as a child will have faded with time.

Thankfully, the exact opposite seems to be true with this film.

Truth be told, I didn’t absolutely love Alice in Wonderland when I was younger.  I liked it well enough, but as a kid it always bothered me that the whole thing was a dream.  It felt like a cheap ending that didn’t satisfy my desire for a well-rounded story.  The individual scenes were fun, but as a whole I just felt like something was lacking.

Viewing it as an adult, however, I’ve found I no longer feel this way.  Perhaps the film was simply over my head as a child, but I can know appreciate the subtle implications of the overall story, and the importance of having it all turn out to be a dream.

The individual vignettes that Alice inadvertently finds herself a part of are more mesmerizing than ever.  The level of absurdity seems to surpass what I had remembered, with each scene becoming more and more preposterous.

The tea party scene was always one I remembered, and is likely one of the most famous.  Its absurdist comedy amused me as a child, yet still continued to make me laugh as an adult.  The drunken doormouse, along with the nonsensical Mad Hatter and March Hare, created such a classic scene that I couldn’t help but wish I could be a part of such absurdity.

One of my favorite scenes has always been (and remains) the scene in which Alice tracks the white rabbit to his house, where she inadvertently consumes another magic cookie (seriously, the drug references in this movie ABOUND) and multiplies in size until she is as big as the house.

This scene always stood out to me as particularly funny, but I was happy to note as I watched that new details began to emerge as entertaining as well.  Specifically, the white rabbit and his unwavering desire to be on time.

Look at his annoyed little squishy face.

Somehow the rabbit doesn’t realize that Alice is not, in fact, his supposed assistant or maid Maryanne, and abruptly begins ordering her about.  He is consistently set on ensuring that he is not late for his “very important date”, and spends the entire movie rushing from one spot to the next.  He is the only character in Wonderland who doesn’t exhibit the same sort of all-consuming zaniness as the rest.  He is neurotic to be sure, but he is far less nonsensical than most characters. He is the one logical adult in a world full of childish chaos, the beacon of order and punctuality in a land in which time and responsibility have no place.  He likely symbolizes the adult world from which Alice seeks to escape; a world that she nevertheless must pursue.  This reference was lost on me as a child, and makes me want to go back and reread the books.  I have a distinct feeling that while the stories seem random and harmlessly amusing as a child, they likely have a deeper hidden meaning, if one only bothers to look for it.

Alice in Wonderland continues Disney’s run of classic children’s stories adapted for the screen, and therein seems to be the studio’s top skill.  Disney managed to create a story that was completely illogical while still maintaining a deeper subtext, making it far more thought-provoking for an adult viewer than I ever would have imagined.  Their adaptation of Carroll’s original stories was superbly done, and brings back a nostalgia for these characters that I had not anticipated.  I may just even run out and buy a copy of Carroll’s books, so that I can delve deeper into the wonderful, wacky world of Wonderland.

-Jess

Batman by Doug Moench & Kelley Jones: Vol. 1

There wasn’t much of a break between Batman comics on “the shelf”.  Then again, there never really is.  Mistah J’s Batman collection is rather extensive, so I know I’m never far from stories of the dark knight in my comics travels.

This collection features the beginning of writer Doug Moench and artist Kelley Jones’s run on Batman.  As has happened on previous trades, I was only able to read about half of the stories collected here, as the remaining stories take place later on in the continuity.  It makes it a tad difficult to write about a trade when I haven’t technically completed it, but the issues I haven’t read are collected elsewhere in other trades on “the shelf”, so at least I’ll get to them eventually.

Moench’s stories are fairly self-explanatory.  With Bruce Wayne having finally returned as Batman, we get to see what changes have occurred within him as he faces off against old and new villains alike.  These issues tie into the events of Nightfall rather frequently, without lingering too long on past events.  We witness Batman trying to find the perfect balance between “darkness and obsession”, as he puts it: embracing the night and fighting evil while still remaining rational and aware of the world around him.

It’s a fine line for Bruce, and one we haven’t seen him address before.  I’m enjoying this more self-aware Batman, as it makes him seem more real and imperfect.

He faces off against a number of famous foes, including Two-Face, Killer Croc, and Scarecrow.  His battle with Scarecrow was especially intriguing.  I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to issues featuring Jonathan Crane: there are certain instances where he comes across as a whiny character with little to no real power (such as in Batman: Four of a Kind).  When handled by a more skilled writer (such as Moench), the character develops into something else entirely, with his nuanced characteristics highlighted and emphasized, making him a far more complex villain.

When Scarecrow’s psychological torments are coupled with Batman’s introspective musings, it makes for an extremely engaging story.

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I loved the fact that Batman comments that Scarecrow is, in a way, a manifestation of the fear he uses against his own enemies.  These comments were well-placed and thoughtful, without ever digressing into psychological self-analysis.  Enough hints are given for the reader to pause and consider their meaning without ever pandering to the audience and explaining everything outright.  It’s a fine balance that not every writer can master, yet Moench handles it quite deftly.

Of all the stories that I read in this collection, my favorite was easily the Killer Croc/Swamp Thing issue.  I’ve been a fan of Swamp Thing since reading the first two trades in Alan Moore’s run.  I wasn’t expecting him to show up in a Batman comic though, considering he’s not actually a villain and he lives in a Louisiana bayou, hundreds of miles away from Gotham. (At least I think it’s hundreds of miles. I just always assume Gotham is New York, or right next door to it.  I need a DC universe map.)  Through a well-placed storyline , Batman chases Killer Croc all the way to the swamps of Louisiana, where we get to see an odd but rather enthralling confrontation between Swamp Thing, Killer Croc, and Batman.

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Swamp Thing (aka Alec Holland) offers Killer Croc refuge, away from the world that has shunned and tormented him his whole life.

Batman is against this idea, believing Croc to be a killer who deserves to be imprisoned for his crimes.  Holland makes a rather compelling argument in Croc’s defense, claiming that he has devolved to little more than an animal, and that to send him back to Arkham would only worsen his life.  By letting him remain in the swamp, Holland argues, he will be able to keep constant watch on him while allowing him to finally find some sort of peace.

This was a surprising but entirely satisfying issue.  Not only did I love seeing this strange interaction between characters, but the story gave us an altogether different sort of ending.  Batman didn’t exactly get the justice he was seeking, but even he acknowledged that this solution seemed the best fit.

Moench makes the gray areas of justice a prevailing theme in his stories, pointing out repeatedly that Batman must make split-second decisions which may not always result in an ideal outcome. Instead, he is forced to decide what would be the best decision overall, be it saving a victim at the expense of letting a killer go, or allowing a criminal like Croc to seek peace in his isolation, away from humanity.  These subtleties are a newer concept to the Batman comics, and something that I’m coming to enjoy very much.  These issues felt so much more complex than stories of old, and I found myself wishing I could keep reading.  I was desperate to find out how Moench would present other characters in his stories, and what subtle hints he would lay for readers to pick up.

Unfortunately I’ll have to wait to read more of these stories, as there are other comics that come between this and the remaining collection within the continuity.  I can only hope that other writers pick up Moench’s skill for subtlety and nuance, so that Batman and Co. may  become more fully realized and well-developed characters.

-Jess

Underworld Unleashed

Underworld Unleashed was one of those trades that I went into completely blind.  I didn’t recognize the main villain on the cover, nor did I have any indication of what the story arc would be.  I opened this book utterly unaware of what I was about to read, and as it turns out, that was for the best.

The premise is laid out quite nicely.  Neron, a villain who is also referred to as the devil himself, summons heroes and villains alike to hell, in order to offer them a deal: their heart’s desire in exchange for their souls.

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He makes a pretty compelling offer.

Unsurprisingly, many agree to these terms, selling their souls for the strength and power they’ve always desired.  We learn all of this through Trickster, a B-level villain from the olden days who serves as a sort of narrator for this story.

As the story progresses, we see a number of characters battling the disasters than have sprung up on Earth as a result of Neron’s interference, as well as a group of Justice League members going into Hell itself.  Their journey is all to save Superman, whom Neron claims to have captured.  As the man of steel hasn’t been seen for some time, it is accepted that Neron must have him, and our heroes set out to save him in any way possible.

The explanation given is that Neron wants a soul that is completely pure, as it gives him the greatest power. After all, who’s soul is purer than Superman’s?

At this point I was already hooked on the story, but then something surprising happened.  It turns out, Superman’s was not the soul Neron wanted; it was Captain Marvel’s.

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I love me some Billy Batson, so I was thrilled to see him taking center stage in a story for a change.  In most of these crossover stories I’ve read he may make an appearance, but it’s never anything beyond making an innocent remark along the lines of, “Holy moley!”  For once Captain Marvel’s power and, more importantly, his innocence come into play.  I was excited to see his strengths serve a larger purpose in the story than they usually do.  So many comics plant one of the “trinity” at their forefront that it was refreshing to see a less-publicized character take center stage.

The fact that it was Captain Marvel was just icing on the cake.

The status quo is returned by the end of the trade, with Neron being defeated (at least for now).  This story was far more entertaining than I would have thought had I read a description beforehand.  A great number of classic DC villains make an appearance here, including Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, and Gorilla Grodd.  Seeing such characters and actually knowing who they are made me grateful for having read the Golden and Silver Age comics on “the shelf”.  These characters may not play huge roles today, but they were significant enough when comics were still a new artform, and they helped shape so many future DC characters.  It’s nice to see that writers and artists haven’t completely forgotten them, and while they may not be the primary villains in a story, their inclusion remains significant.

The artwork and overall story were excellent, and yet one rather random and innocuous detail stood out to me while reading: The brief yet powerful appearance of the Joker.

Joker pops up early in the story, as a sort of lapdog for Neron (along with Lex Luthor and a few other villains) who traded in his soul for his heart’s desire.  Trickster has already seen Neron himself as well as every other villain helping him, and remains fairly nonplussed by their appearances.  He is only thrown off when he sees Joker sitting before him:

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Tricker’s brief account of Joker is enough to solidify him as one of the most insane, formidable foes in the DC universe.  Trickster has just faced Neron, Gorilla Grodd, and Lex Luthor among others, yet it is the clown prince of crime who leaves him feeling nervous.  I love the line, “When villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories.”  It not only fits Joker perfectly, but it shows what an extended reach he has within this world.  Even villains he has never directly dealt with are scared of him.  He’s not a man to be taken lightly, even in the shadow of the devil himself.
This brief aside would have been more than enough to detail Joker’s character for the sake of the story, yet the comic does us one better.  After a brief conversation, Joker reveals what he asked for in exchange for his soul.

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I couldn’t help it, I absolutely loved this scene.  It highlights the Joker’s personality so perfectly, emphasizing his absurd behavior and the fact that he never truly seems to be after anything in particular: wealth, power, glory; they’re all second-string to whatever whim might float into his mind at a given moment.  Although these scenes don’t directly play into the overall story, they help round out the narrative, allowing brief cameos from a variety of villains while also showing just how far-reaching Neron’s grasp is.

I’m not generally a fan of brief crossover events such as this, but I actually found this story to be thoroughly entertaining.  The artwork is beautifully rendered, and the story had enough detail and obscure character appearances to keep me interested.  Had another creative team been in charge of this storyline, I could easily have glossed over it, finding nothing memorable or remarkable within its pages.  Instead, I’m left eagerly wondering if I’ll encounter Neron again on “the shelf”, along with all of the classic Golden Age characters included in this story.

-Jess

Wonder Woman: The Contest

The Contest is the first Wonder Woman trade I’ve come across on “the shelf” since George Perez’s Omnibus.  It had been a while since I read much about Diana, and I was excited to see what had been going on with the character.

This trade opens with Diana returning to Themyscira after her home island had been lost for months.  Finally locating it, she returns to her sisters to learn that much has changed.  While it was only months for her, to the Amazons it was ten years, in which a fierce battle was waged against Queen Hippolyta’s sister Antiope and her tribe, who were sent back to Themyscira by Circe to destroy the Amazons.

Learning that Circe tricked them, Hippolyta and Antiope’s people work together to defeat a series of monsters.  As a reward for their aid, Hippolyta grants Antiope’s followers a patch of land on Paradise Island.

At this point, Diana returns.  Unlike most other stories I’ve read, the relationship between Diana and her mother is shown as much more strained, with Hippolyta seriously questioning her daughter’s effectiveness as the chosen representative in man’s world:

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Hippolyta is angry that Diana has not been more effective, and issues a decree that another challenge shall take place, to determine if a new messenger of peace shall be chosen.

A lot of the story felt like filler, with Diana interacting with her Amazonian sisters but feeling out of place.  The tension abounds, both between Diana and her mother, and Diana and Antiope’s followers. One of the only intriguing aspects of the story is when Diana learns the truth of her mother’s past and her relationship with Hercules.  Even so, it clashed with the image of Hippolyta I’ve formed in my head and left me feeling as though I didn’t know the character at all.

Eventually the contest begins, and while Diana fights fiercely and seems about to win, ultimately one of Antiope’s followers, a woman named Artemis, is crowned victorious.

At this point the story is almost over, and we see Artemis journey to man’s world to begin her work.  Unfortunately, she is an unpredictable, angry warrior, who is more determined to fight than spread the message of Amazonian peace.

Diana is unwilling to simply give up her ties to man’s world, and so we see her adopt a new outfit.  No longer the official “Wonder Woman” of Paradise Island, we are given an entirely made-over Diana:

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Quite frankly I really didn’t care for this trade.  Diana’s transformation, both physical and emotional, was completely incongruous with everything I thought I knew about the character.  Not only does she adopt a completely new outfit (that honestly comes across as though DC was trying to create a new, edgier Diana for the 90’s) but more importantly they completely change her character, as the panel above suggests.  Diana only fights to defend herself or those around her, yet she is pounding the bad guy in this panel even though he’s saying he’s not fighting back.  This is so far removed from the Diana I’m familiar with, and I  simply couldn’t get past these drastic changes.  Couple that with the fact that I really didn’t care for the artwork in this trade, it ultimately created a story that I just couldn’t get into.

I usually  enjoy Wonder Woman stories very much, but I dearly hope the changes made in this story don’t last very long.  I miss the Diana of old, and hope she reverts back to her normal self soon enough.

-Jess