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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: WONDER WOMAN #31

Image from DC Comics
Wonder Woman #31 begins a new arc, "Children of the Gods," described by DC as 'the next great Wonder Woman epic' in the ad copy. This is the issue that brings James Robinson, who in the 90s created the iconic Starman series but who has more recently been mired in controversy over scenes of transphobia in an Image book -- Comics Alliance has an in-depth read on that here. His Wonder Woman run was itself widely panned upon announcement, as the appetite for a Wonder Woman story that asked, "But what about the men?" turned out to be somewhat limited online. As a debut, this issue will do very little to persuade those wary readers that this is for them, both because this is very much an issue that puts Wonder Woman in the back seat of her own book, and because there are some deep storytelling problems.

The story opens with a terrible trope, poorly used: The flash forward. "This is how it ends," a caption tells us, showing Wonder Woman pleading with her brother, the electricity of Zeus causing her to cower back a bit. What is he doing? Why? What does Wonder Woman want? Turn the page and find ou--oh, on page two, we're in the sleepy town of Elexinor, Oregon, five weeks earlier, watching a man named Paul... shop for groceries. Settle in, kids, because we're with Paul for the next thirteen pages.

A common piece of advice given to comics pros is this: You only have the first four or five pages, probably less, to hook a reader before they put your book back on the shelves, so make 'em count. It's the same reason TV shows tend to favor the flash forward, to try and grab a limited attention span quickly with a taste of the good stuff before settling into the more mundane rhythm of the story. The idea here is that we'll be so curious -- who is Wonder Woman's brother? What is she pleading with him not to do? Who is Paul? Why are they arbitrarily hiding Paul's face? -- that we simply must pick up the issue and find out more. And then, when a few of the questions are answered -- Oh, that's who Paul is! -- but the bigger ones remain a mystery, we will come back next week. It's basic serialized storytelling.

And it's terrible. Done well, the flash forward, can instill a variety of emotions in a reader, typically something along the line of tension, dread, and suspense. It makes the reader need to turn the page. But to do that, we need context; why is this dangerous? How does it connect to what we're seeing on the next pages? All we're told is that Wonder Woman is upset about her brother. Artist Carlos Pagulayan doesn't even illustrate a background, so we don't know where or when this confrontation is happening. And he doesn't draw Wonder Woman's brother, so the decision on the next two pages to hide "Paul's" face is doubly confusing, as is the 'hero shot' - angled up, profile against the sky, weirdly tense for someone in 'closing his car door' mode - when we finally see Paul's face... and have no goddamn idea who it is.

Image from CBR
Now, the implication we're supposed to draw is that this either is or isn't (I legitimately can't tell which) Wonder Woman's nameless brother - yes, I know he has a name, but if you didn't read "Darkseid War" you'd have no idea what it was, and in this issue he's known only as 'BROTHER!' - but Robinson and Pagulayan failed to set this up on the first page by showing us anything about her brother. Does this look like him? Does this look nothing like him? I can't tell which they're trying to say. All I can tell is that he is hot as fuck and he can, in fact, get it, which is nice, but definitely inessential to the narrative we're about to see play out.

Which is illustrative of my primary complaint about Wonder Woman #31 -- it feels like Robinson and Pagulayan weren't communicating enough, because they often work at cross purposes. Those first few pages are an excellent example. While Robinson misuses the flash forward, the hook with Paul has a blunt, folksy charm... but 'folksy charm' and 'Henry Cavill as filmed by Michael Bay' don't really play together. And Hercules has a kind of hilarious underreaction to Grail, a weird blue demon lady with a giant axe-scythe; he is vastly more tense and combat ready getting out of his car than he is when confronted in the dark in the woods by a monster.

There are some things that I do quite like. Pagulayan, coming off an underrated run on Deathstroke, is a strong artist, with a fantastic sense of layout and character. It comes through in little moments, like the transition from day to night on the title page (above), or a small, three panel monologue from Hercules that manages some phenomenal facial expressions. Here, in the issue's rare moments of intimacy and inaction, Pagulayan truly shines, an expressiveness and subtlety present that I wish the issue had more opportunities to explore.

Pagulayan struggles a bit more with Grail - I don't think it's his fault; she's far too overdesigned to work with the realistic art DC favors these days - but his clean lines and strong physical personality and sense of space work much better when we get to the cleaner design of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. There's some... odd framing here, thanks in part to a script that has a character address Steve, before berating him for responding because surely Wonder Woman can respond for herself... to something that wasn't directed at her, but that's just more of a sign of the disconnect between Robinson and Pagulayan that runs through the book than a problem with Pagulayan's art.

Look, I dislike the "Wonder Woman as the daughter of Zeus" plot already, find Darkseid's daughter to be a profoundly dull character, and am deeply disinterested in 'Wonder Woman's brother' as a plot hook or a thing that exists really at all. I like Robinson's work more than most folks these days, and I've talked about why I enjoy a lot of the art in the book, but on description, this is not a book that grabs me. That's fine. But I also think there is a deep disconnect between the script and the art, and that the pacing, the specific way they decided to tell the story, is deeply off. And that's less fine, at least in my opinion. There is a way to do this story well, even if it's one that I don't think is particularly exciting, but this issue just felt deeply sloppy to me.

Wonder Woman #31 is the first part of the "Children of the Gods" story arc, and is out now in comic shops and online comics sellers with a list price of $2.99. Wonder Woman #31 is written by James Robinson, penciled by Carlos Pagulayan, inked by Sean Parsons, Jason Paz, and Scott Hann, colored by Romulo Fajardo Jr., and lettered by Saida Temofonte.
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