This article was originally published at DC Infinite on March 18, 2014.
Wonder Woman has been one of the most critically successful titles since the New 52 initiative was launched two and a half years ago. It’s also one of only four (1) DC comics to maintain its original creative team. This is due to the high quality stewardship of writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang (2). Together, they have crafted a new mythos for the titular character. Rather than focus on Wonder Woman’s adventures as a superhero, she has become a part of the greater Greek pantheon, working with and against a massive ensemble cast of gods, New Gods, and various others. Azzarello and Chiang have also imbued the series with overarching themes, the most prominent of which is one that arises in most of Azzarello’s work: the consistency of conflict.
The large cast of Wonder Woman is reminiscent of Azzarello’s magnum opus 100 Bullets. It also shares many of that project’s greatest strengths: multi-faceted characters, thorough backgrounds, well-designed visuals, and a masterful understanding of conflict. The first issue of Wonder Woman, alone, illustrates Azzarello’s innate understanding of how conflict drives drama on multiple levels and, for this reason, is well worth examining.
Wonder Woman #1 is not a perfect example of comic storytelling. Apollo, Hermes, and Hera are all introduced in a way that relies on the reader being previously aware of Greek mythology. It’s impossible to tell who Hera is without knowing the origin myth of the peacock. The introduction of Wonder Woman does not take place until the issue is half over and assumes the reader is aware of her general role. The issue does not function as an individual story or even a chapter; it’s an introductory scene, similar to the opening of Star Wars: A New Hope. There is a lot of action, but little understanding of plot or motivation. However (just like that other famous opening) it’s incredibly engaging and manages to enthrall its audience in spite of any shortcomings.
The opening pages of the book establish a clear villain, someone capable of driving an extended conflict. Apollo’s appearance may not be as menacing as Darth Vader’s, but he’s not far off. He exudes confidence; dressed in a fine suit, his ebony exterior is cold and glistening like polished stone, while his eyes burn like the sun he embodies. Chiang’s knack for design is obvious from the very first page. Every god’s appearance reflects his or her character, so there is never any doubt that Apollo is the villain of the piece and that he is someone to be feared. This design, and the message it sends, allows Azzarello to slowly introduce Apollo’s character. He does not begin the comic by acting overtly antagonistic. Rather, he engages several women (who he burns alive on the final page) in a conversation about his goals. This, in turn, introduces an ongoing conflict: the battle for the throne of Olympus.
The decision to begin the story in media res allows Azzarello to instantly engage in a variety of conflicts. This is so very important because conflict is what drives story. Conflict is what drives story. It allows writers to instantly engage their characters and audience. Without conflict, there are only statistics, and as much as comic fans may love statistics, (3) it’s only background for real drama. The opening of the first Star Wars film exemplifies this notion. The establishing shot of a looming Imperial Star Destroyer firing upon a tiny Rebel cruiser is instantly engaging, visually displaying a battle between two distinct forces. Knowing almost nothing about the decades of conflict, the audience is instantly engaged. Imagine if the opening sequence of the film had instead involved a long explanation of why the Rebel ship was fleeing the Imperial ship and why the Rebellion was being fought in the first place. By the time anything actually occurred on screen, you might have already fallen asleep.
Azzarello understands this principle, that conflict is the heart of drama, and that’s why he starts the story in the midst of this conflict. In media res is an effective technique to begin stories because it instantly engages the audience. That’s true of every scene in Wonder Woman #1. Even without the full context that will be provided in subsequent issues, each scene is compelling whether it’s due to the evident conflict that drives every page.
Beyond the wonderful imagery of Apollo’s introduction as the “big bad”, there is also a foreboding scene featuring Hera, who decapitates a pair of horses in order to create centaur warriors that will fight Wonder Woman in the issues climactic battle sequence. This is not revealed until later, though. All that is shown is the brutal act of murder and the subsequent birthing of human flesh through a still-gaping wound. It’s a scene steeped in horror (4) that works to establish another villain while also setting up the centerpiece of the comic. Readers are left with many questions, but have no doubt as to whether they should continue reading.
It’s also worth noting that in the sequence—in which Hera creates her centaur warriors—there is a clear series of cause and effect beats between panels. After she lifts the scythe, there is a panel of splashing blood, followed by a panel of the removed horse heads. The violent action itself is obscured from vision, but made evident by the former and previous panels, allowing the reader to imagine the nightmare scenario. Chiang’s depiction of the horse’s terror and, later, its lifeless eyes do so much more than any display of gore possibly could. With the streaks of red in the middle panel, imagination is allowed to run wild making the violence as intense and dark as possible.
This cause and effect sequencing crystallizes the smaller conflicts of the comic. Wonder Woman is filled with grandiose schemes and ongoing character conflicts, but these alone cannot carry a story. Every scene, every moment relies on conflict to drive the story forward. Not every panel can feature Wonder Woman fighting against the forces of evil. Sometimes Hera needs to kill a horse. Even in those smaller moments, though, there is conflict and drama. Hera wants the horse to be dead and the horse wants to be alive: conflict. Azzarello and Chiang elevate even these smaller beats by pulling out what is most important. In this instance, it’s the horror of ending a life. They mine that drama by focusing on how every action leads to a reaction, always providing a cause and effect breakdown of decisions. Nowhere is this understanding of cause and effect, of small dramatic beats, more clear than in Wonder Woman’s battle with the centaurs.
Almost every two subsequent panels, in the course of the action sequence, play off one another in a direct manner. Each marking a small dramatic beat, a change in at least one character’s circumstances. These beats serve to propel the story. Every panel serves as both an action and a reaction. The beats occur in the gutters where readers perform the act of closure (5). This allows the action to be both smooth and propulsive. Every thing that happens will naturally lead to the next thing. It’s not only a great way to design an action sequence, it’s also a great way to design a story.
Early in the action, Wonder Woman defends her new friend, Zola, from an arrow. The first panel is set within the frame of the second, providing a quick setup with a dynamic payoff. The arrow protrudes from the bleed (edge of the page) pointing directly at the characters within the panel, helping to guide the reader’s eye, first to Wonder Woman’s defensive posturing, then down to her deflection of the arrow. This action beat is not only exciting (Chiang’s posing of Wonder Woman in the second panel can only be described as bad ass), but reveals something about Diana. She is both quick and skilled as a fighter, but also uses those skills to protect life first.
Later in the sequence, a centaur that is fleeing into the woods snatches Zola. Diana grabs at a nearby sword and throws it at the retreating villain. In the first three panels, she launches the sword. She aims, throws, and the sword flies through the air. All of this occurs in a series of narrowing panels that ratchet up the tension. These series of small interactions pay off in a much larger panel, where the centaur’s arm is struck off. Every panel helps to tell the story of the one that came before and after in a clear series of cause and effect events. Once again, Wonder Woman displays both her battle prowess and desire to protect others.
All of these smaller beats help to establish the character of Wonder Woman by the end of the issue. She is a skillful and brave warrior capable of savagely defeating her enemies. She is also an incredibly caring person who desires to defend those who cannot defend themselves. This dichotomy of passion and compassion illustrate the central conflict of Wonder Woman’s character and it’s all shown through her conflict with two bloodthirsty centaurs (that is supposed to sound a little ridiculous). There’s no need for Scott Lobdell-ian monologues to inform the reader who a character is or what they desire. Azzarello manages to capably characterize his heroine through her actions.
This emphasis on cause and effect action only serves to emphasize the conflict in every scene. Every cause does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of the ongoing drama of the story. Wonder Woman does not block arrows or cut off limbs to appear cool (although she certainly does). She does these things because she is in conflict with the centaurs, trying to protect Zola while they attempt to harm her. Without that central conflict, there’s no story to be told, and no need for any of the Chiang’s exhilarating action sequences.
Wonder Woman is representative of Brian Azzarello at his best: pitting characters against one another, their situations, and themselves. It’s about a woman who is both a warrior and a peacemaker. It’s about a family of great power where no one is willing to share what they have. It’s about a world that is constantly in conflict, and the heroes who are trying to find some peace. That’s a formula for an incredibly compelling story.
It’s fitting that Ares, the god of war, resembles the man that does conflict better than just about anyone.
(1) The others being Scott Snyder on Batman, Peter Tomasi on Batman and…, as well as Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray on All-Star Western. If you include artists as well as writers, then no title has managed to last until now under consistent creative management.
(2) Tony Akins, Kano, and Goran Sudzuka have all contributed pencils as well. However, Chiang’s distinctive designs create a connective tissue that allows the series to read as a singular piece, rather than a tonal mess.
(3) The decades-long success of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe speaks volumes about fandom’s dedication to detail, history, and power rankings. It makes for fun Wednesday conversations about who would win or why someone deserves an official No-Prize, but it also has nothing to do with dramatic stakes or anything else actually important to story telling.
(4) There’s also some pretty horrific sexual imagery to be found in these pages, on par with Ridley Scott’s Alien. The panel in which human arms and head push themselves out of the horse’s neck call to mind the image of human birth. It mines the fear of dying in child birth in a way that most readers may not overtly recognize.
(5) Scott McCloud defines closure in his comic Understanding Comics as “the phenomenon of observing the parts, but perceiving the whole”. This essentially just means that readers connect the metaphorical dots of two distinct panels in order to tell the story of what happens in between the static pictures.