Wonder Woman can never win. That seems to be the constant theme of the series under Brian Azzarello. Even when she saves someone’s life, or a city, or the world, it comes with a cost that undermines her victory. Every decision she makes leads to further complications, putting her constantly on the defensive. I don’t think the woman’s had a moment to relax for two years now without some past action coming back to haunt her. We’ll talk about all of this in relation to Greek tragedy momentarily, but first:
I am going to spoil this entire comic book!
Reading further will rob you of joy if you haven’t read the issue yet!
Bad things happening to people for no good reason is a staple of Greek tragedy, and of Greek myth generally. Past decisions and actions, however virtuous and well-intentioned, tend to have unforeseen consequences that ruin lives. Even things entirely beyond human control, like parentage, come around to destroy people. It’s tough to be a Greek hero. Victories are pyrrhic and fleeting, and are only followed by more troubles. Odysseus helps the Greeks win the Trojan War, but he has to fight for ten years and then spend another ten years trying to get home. Oedipus unwittingly fulfills a damaging prophecy despite his parents’ best efforts to avoid it.
Basically, the gods will always screw you over. The fates are aligned against you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The ancient Greeks were kind of a dark group.
Greek tragedy is different from Shakespearean tragedy because it’s completely unavoidable. In Shakespearean tragedy, you bring your downfall upon yourself. Your tragic flaw leads to your doom. In Greek tragedy, you’re hosed to begin with. You can be the best, most heroic person in the world and tragedy will still befall you.
Which brings us to Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is relentlessly heroic, always doing everything she can to help not just her friends but also her enemies. In this current run, she doesn’t really have a tragic flaw. We could perhaps view her constantly jumping into the fray, often without a plan, to protect others as a semi-tragic flaw, but really that’s just altruism. She’s not Lady Macbeth. She’s a hero.
And yet, even when things go right for her, they go wrong. She, Hermes, Siracca, and Orion all converged on Cassandra’s base in Chernobyl to rescue Milan, and they did. However, she gave Cassandra the information Milan refused to divulge about the First Born’s location, making Milan feel useless in his own heroism:
Plus, they didn’t get there soon enough; Cassandra attached a bomb to Milan, and Orion shot off to New Genesis with Milan to try to defuse it. Milan’s life still hangs in the balance, and Wonder Woman has lost a valuable member of her team.
Her heroism came back to bite her in another way as well. When she hastily set off after Milan last issue, she left Strife with Zola and Zeke. When she returned from Chernobyl, Zola was gone because Strife had talked her into leaving, convincing her that she was responsible for the deaths their group had incurred. The issue ended with Wonder Woman finding Zola’s goodbye letter and Zola meeting up with Dionysus, Apollo’s lap dog.
Throughout this entire run, Wonder Woman’s victory’s have been hollow. At the end of the first year, she defeated the gods on Mount Olympus and saved Zeke, only to be betrayed by Hermes and lose the baby. At the end of the second year, she defeated the First Born, but at the cost of killing Ares and getting saddled with the mantle of the god of war. In almost every single issue, some decision or action goes awry and things go sideways for her. We can easily read Wonder Woman as a tragic hero in the Greek tradition.
Even though she’s now a god, Wonder Woman’s connection to humanity furthers this reading. Greek tragic heroes are mortals, the playthings of the gods and the fates, pawns in their games. Even the demigods can’t escape their fiendish machinations so long as the walk the Earth. By eschewing her title as the god of war and remaining with her friends on Earth, Wonder Woman becomes just as subject to the inherent, cruel fatalism of the world.
If this is what Azzarello is going for, it’s an interesting idea. It’s somewhat fitting, considering Wonder Woman’s origins in Greek mythology, but ultimately I don’t think it works, either in concept or execution.
Superheroes are our new legendary heroes. In the same way the ancient Greeks told stories of Heracles and Perseus, so do we tell stories of Superman and Batman. The problem is, our universe is so much bigger. Heracles cleaned stables and stole a belt, and briefly held up the sky for Atlas, but Superman can fly through the air and throw planets. The superhero cosmogony is so much bigger. In the DC Comics universe, the Olympian gods are but one of several families of gods, paling in comparison to the epic powers of the New Gods, or beings like the Spectre. The sway of their manipulations and the powers of their fates are small potatoes now. Our modern mythology has superseded the scope of Greek myth.
In terms of execution, what we’ve got is 26 issues of Wonder Woman where Wonder Woman can’t catch a break, where characters regularly point out the ways she’s failed, and where the reader is forced to constantly questions her decisions and actions because we’ve learned that they never go well. There’s a lot of good stuff in Azzarello’s Wonder Woman run, some fantastic new characters and fun re-interpretations of old favourites, but ultimately his treatment of Wonder Woman, whether it’s a Greek tragedy conceit or something else, frequently undermines the character. Wonder Woman should get a win sometimes without the rug being pulled out from under her. She’s the hero of the book, after all.
So yeah, this issue was okay. The Chernobyl stuff was cool, and it sets up some big problems for Wonder Woman moving forward. I just wish she could get a clean win at some point, without the gut punch of Milan’s reaction or Zola taking off, because when we keep getting things like that ALL the time it weakens the character. Give the woman a break, man.