The reboot that turned Wonder Woman into Diana Prince, martial artist, crimefighter and adventurer, began with a four issue arc from Wonder Woman #179 through #182. #178 showed Diana Prince walking on the wild side to clear Steve of a murder charge, but as I said in my last post, #179 went in an entirely different direction.
In “Wonder Woman’s Last Battle” by Denny O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky, General Darnell accuses Steve Trevor of espionage. Steve’s response is to punch Darnell, clobber the guards ordered to arrest him and then jumping out a convenient window. We readers already know it’s a ruse: as an intelligence officer turned rogue, Steve’s a valuable asset for the mysterious crime lord and spymaster, Dr. Cyber. Nobody knows what he looks like but rumors quoted later say he’s half-man, half-machine.
When Steve’s betrayal makes the news, Diana refuses to believe it and resolves to clear his name. Before she can start, Hippolyta summons her back to Paradise Island: the Amazons must leave Earth to recharge their mystic energies so Diana either goes with them or renounces her powers, her lasso, her robot plane, etc. I doubt any of y’all will be surprised she chooses option B and stays on Earth.
She also resigns from the military, leaving her not only powerless but unemployed, friendless and homeless: “For the first time in my life I’m faced with practical problems — like finding a place to live, and earning money for food.” Which makes no sense — it’s as if O’Neil and Sekowsky imagine WW spent her down time living in the invisible jet — but it does further the reboot by forcing Diana to find a new place. She picks a small apartment over an empty store, figuring she can turn the store into a small business. This will become the fashion boutique she ran later in this era.
Inspecting the premises, Diana discovers some thugs attacking an elderly Chinese man in the alley behind the store. She rushes to help him only to see the man deck all three hoods effortlessly. Even more remarkable, he knows her identity and came to the neighborhood because he knew he’d find her there.We never learn what his “certain powers” are, but when you’re a stereotypically mystical Chinese dude, I guess those are part of the package. He also knows Steve is innocent, which gives him and Diana a common enemy: Dr. Cyber wiped out I Ching’s monastic order to obtain the rare treasures the monastery held. I Ching says, however, that he’s motivated not by hate or revenge but love of humanity — Cyber wants to enslave humanity and I Ching loves humanity too much to tolerate that.
I Ching puts Diana into an intensive martial-arts training regimen (this would have been a lot more novel back in 1968 than even a few years later) but before they can take the fight to Cyber, Steve shows up critically injured — Cyber was not fooled — then lapses into a coma. Hunting down Steve’s attackers, Diana and I Ching fight their way through a factory that manufactures booby-trapped robot toys. After surviving that peril they join forces with Tim Trench, a grizzled PI who wants revenge on Cyber for killing his partner Archy Miles (just as the previous issue referenced Woolrich’s The Phantom Lady, this is an obvious joke on Sam Spade’s dead partner in The Maltese Falcon). In the middle of all this, Steve wakes out of his coma and rushes to Diana’s side only for Cyber’s crew to shoot him dead. It’s so convenient that if I were reading in 1968, I’d have figured he was a ringer with the real Steve still Cyber’s captive.
Don’t feel sad for Diana, though. Sure, Steve was the love of her life but she finds the tough, confident Trench “strong, decisive … a man!” and wonders if he can make her forget Steve. The fight against Cyber continues as they track her organization to an undersea base, then to a small ski resort where in a nice twist it turns out every single resident is one of Cyber’s agents (surprisingly Cyber’s organization doesn’t have a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. acronym or even an overall name like Hydra). In another twist, Cyber herself turns out to be neither a man, a cyborg nor particularly computer oriented; I’m guessing the name is to confuse people about who she really is.
In a third twist, Trench double-crosses Di and I Ching, selling them out to Cyber. At the end of the issue, Trench follows Cyber’s orders to shoot them; in the following issue, with Sekowsky now writing as well as drawing, we see it’s just a warning shot. The PI says he won’t kill them if they stay out of his way, then heads off with Cyber’s jewel box, leaving his former allies in the villain’s hands.
Fortunately Cyber makes the traditional mistake of not putting a bullet through their heads immediately, enabling them to escape. They track Cyber to London where aristocrat Reginald Hyde-White helps them hunt their nemesis. Along with hunting Cyber and buying more cool fashion from London boutiques, Diana falls for Reggie but discovers her taste in men still sucks. Yep, he’s another Cyber agent, but he’s fallen hard for Diana so he saves her at the climax. Diana’s response is to deck him, tell I Ching to stuff whatever Asian wisdom he was about to offer her and run off into the night, sobbing.
At the time this came out, it was the most radical reboot I’d ever seen, possibly that anyone back then had ever seen. It knocked me for a loop but not in a good way — even though I wasn’t a fan of Wonder Woman, this still felt like a bridge too far. Reading now I like it better, but I’d like it still more if it had been an all-new character. Make her an ordinary woman dating a guy in military intelligence and you get the same story (but not, of course, the link with the Wondner Woman name); as a new take on the Amazing Amazon it’s a lot less satisfying.
Part of the problem is how fast Sekowsky and O’Neil get rid of the old status quo. We never learn why she quits military intelligence, which would surely have put her in a better position to help Steve; we never see the scene where she walks away from her career or learn how she feels about it. While it’s true Robert Kanigher rarely showed Diana Prince with any sort of life outside her job she must have had one; writing as if she were the post-Crisis Princess Diana with no other identity makes no sense.
Another problem, as Kelly Sue DeConick says in her excellent intro to the collected hardback, is that in making Wonder Woman a realistic modern woman (or as close as a martial arts master battling an international crime syndicate can get), the creators frequently default to sexist tropes. There’s Diana’s girly squeals over all her pretty new clothes; her astonishment that guys find her attractive; her terrible luck with men. To say nothing of turning one of the best-known female superheroes into the protege of a male mentor (O’Neil later said he should have made her teacher a woman).
It doesn’t help that “the incredible I Ching” is a stereotype. His creators simply lifted the name for the Chinese Book of Changes (contrary to some accounts his name was never meant to be just Ching); he’s a blind man so awesome he’s better than a sighted dude (a common disability cliche); and he’s a wisdom-spouting Chinese mystic/martial artist. I don’t think it’s surprising that while Steve would resurrect, die and resurrect a couple of times (here and here), nobody’s bothered resurrecting I Ching, though Grant Morrison introduced some sort of post-Crisis version in his run on Batman.
All that said, I enjoy these. There’s a lot of energy, Cyber’s a formidable foe and Sekowsky’s art is better than his usual. It’s just not Wonder Woman.
#SFWApro. Omnibus cover by Jose Garcia Lopez, all other art by Sekowsky.
I LOVE this weirdo run, but I didn’t read it as it was coming out, and I don’t have any particular fondness for pre-reboot Wonder Woman, so maybe that’s it. Yes, you’re right about the stereotypes, but dang, it’s pretty gonzo nevertheless. I guess it didn’t sell too well because it didn’t last too long, but it’s still so interesting. And yeah, Sekowsky’s art is terrific.
I enjoy it quite a bit. I’ll be blogging about the godawful end of this era next week, and then the mid-Silver Age WW some time after that.