Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wonder Woman: Dead Earth #2 Review and Spoilers

A Goddess Examined

Writer and artist: Daniel Warren Johnson

Colors by: Michael Spicer
Letters by: Rus Wooton
Cover Price: $6.99
Release Date: February 19, 2020

Last month's opening installment of Wonder Woman: Dead Earth very effectively established the basic premise of the series: Diana wakes up from a cryogenic sleep in a ruined Wayne Manor at some unspecified point in the future to find the Earth transformed into a post-apocalyptic wasteland of the sort popularized by films like the Mad Max series and games like the Fallout franchise. The main focus of writer/artist Daniel Warren Johnson's story in this first issue appeared to be the tension between the unremitting bleakness of a nuclear holocaust-scoured setting and Diana's irrepressible hope and belief in the potential of human beings to be better. By the end of that first issue, Diana has the upper hand in that struggle between hope and harsh reality. She has made friends, liberated one of the last remaining human settlements from the (understandably) harsh rule of a tyrant, and rescued a savagely mutated Barbara Minerva from captivity and the bitter cage of her desire for vengeance. Will things continue to go Diana's way this month? I think we probably know the answer to that, but let's find out anyway, eh?

One of the more impressive things about Johnson's imagining of Diana and her world in this series is the subtle way he has altered the Wonder Woman mythology and, in doing so, offered a fresh perspective on the character. This issue starts with just such a moment – a startling revelation about Diana's backstory which deftly blends the traditional 'made from clay' origin with the 'child of Zeus' one. That Johnson manages to reconcile these two quite different origins is impressive enough, but that he does so in a way that sheds fresh light on the relationship between Hippolyta and her daughter is even more so. (It also reveals Hippolyta to be determined, calculating and ultimately a damaged woman, which will come into play later in the issue.) This four-page introduction to the issue is remarkably engaging. The relationship between the young Diana and her Amazon trainer Nubia is skilfully laid out; Johnson's Themiscyra is more rugged and visceral than most other depictions of it.

When we shift back to the 'present' day, it is to find Diana speaking to the imprisoned ex-tyrant Theyden. She is going to try to take the band of survivors from the city to Themiscyra, where, she believes, they will be safe from the horrors of the wasteland, including the savage, mutated Haedra who infest it. She would like Theyden's help in doing so.  The conversation – and Diana's subsequent explanation of it to her new friend Dee – demonstrates Johnson's understanding of Wonder Woman's character perfectly. She has learned, she reveals, to take the long view when it comes to human nature. People can change. They did not start out as evil or self-serving or venal or corrupt. Once they have fallen, they do not have to stay that way. Diana is not naïve enough to think that Theyden won't need watching, but she is determined to give him a chance to change his ways.

What follows in the rest of the issue is ultimately a brutal examination of that redemptive ethos. Diana leads an exodus out of the city and towards the coast, but this is no Biblical escape from Egypt, complete with miraculous Red Sea crossing. When the camp is menaced by a gigantic Haedra, many people die and Diana has to use all her skill, strength and ingenuity to defeat it. While the depleted band of humans does manage to reach the shore without further difficulty, the boat that Tal has fashioned is only big enough to take Diana and her friends to Themiscyra, so Diana leaves the larger group to make contact with her long lost Amazon sisters.

As much as I would like to, I don't feel it would be right to spoil the rest of the issue. What happens on Themiscyra is unsettling, dramatic and profoundly tragic, but it places the focus squarely on Diana's character and her values. It is the first time in a long while that I've read a Wonder Woman book and felt that not just Diana's life but the very essence of her character is at stake. Having established Diana's grace, compassion and propensity to forgive so powerfully in the first half of the book, what Johnson puts her through in the second half is absolutely gripping and makes for incredibly powerful storytelling.

Speaking of which, I must confess my ignorance here. This is the first example of Daniel Warren Johnson's work I've encountered; I obviously need to up my indie game! There has always been a somewhat glamorized approach to the depiction of Diana over the years (and that Mike Deodato Jr collection has pride of place on my shelf!) and this is an approach that Johnson deliberately eschews. His art is directed entirely to storytelling rather than peppering the book with poster-worthy splashes or spreads. The result is a very engrossing reading experience. Johnson's characters adopt naturalistic poses and their faces are pleasingly varied and expressive. He shows an impressive flexibility with layouts: the page in which Diana speaks to Theyden is all small rectangular boxes and tight close-ups, evoking the bars of the cell in which Theyden is being kept; the double-page spreads of Diana leading her adopted people across a snow-blasted landscape and of the huge Haedra, limned in firelight, looming over the human camp are spectacular; the moment of its demise is brutally magnificent.

Bits and Pieces:

To my mind, this title exemplifies the raison d'être of DC's Black Label line perfectly. Told by a master craftsman, this story takes a beloved character out of her usual milieu, subtly reworks her origin and puts her in a gripping narrative that forces the reader – and the character, for that matter – to examine afresh what makes that character work so well. This issue does that magnificently. I can't recommend it highly enough.


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