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Exploring Radical (And Kinky) Idealism: “Wonder Woman Earth One Volume Two” Review

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When “Wonder Woman Earth One: Volume 1” came out in 2016, it was groundbreaking in how it re-imagined Wonder Woman while reconnecting her with her kinkier roots. For years, she’d been moving away from the unique brand of feminism that her creator, William Moulton Marston, had once defined her. This culminated in her 2017 movie in which all the BDSM connotation were purged from her persona.

While many creative forces over multiple decades turned Wonder Woman into someone very different from her creator had intended, Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette went in the opposite direction. They dared to embrace the kinks and reshape Wonder Woman’s story in a way that works while retaining Marston’s original themes.

That story remains one of my favorite Wonder Woman stories of all time and one I’ve gone out of my way to praise. Finally, after a two-year wait and a prolonged absence of kink from superhero comics, “Wonder Woman Earth One: Volume 2” has arrived. Fans of warrior women, feminist utopias, and not-so-subtle bondage themes can rejoice.

Like any sequel, it faces the inescapable challenge of matching the high bar set by its predecessor. On top of that, it also has to dig deeper into an aspect of Wonder Woman that generations of writers have tried to overwrite or ignore. Even with an elevated profile, thanks to her movie, this is a part of Wonder Woman’s persona that is largely unknown or undeveloped.

The greatest challenge of Volume 1 was to reintroduce Marston’s radical concepts of love, submission, and domination in a way that didn’t feel like bad fan fiction. Morrison and Paquette succeeded by building the story around this dazzling, techno-feminist utopia on a mythology built on ideas that seem antithetical to the world dominated by lies, mistrust, and cynicism.

If the goal of that story was to affirm the potential of these ideas, then “Wonder Woman Earth One: Volume 2” is built around how those ideas are challenged. It’s one thing to defend them on an island paradise populated by immortal warrior women of unyielding compassion. It’s quite another to defend them in a world where gay frogs inspire conspiracy theories.

Wonder Woman’s situation is considerably different this time around. She’s not insulated on her island paradise. She’s well-known public figure, an established superhero, and a vocal proponent for her radical ideology. She presents it as a viable way of achieving peace and justice in a world full of suffering and hatred. Unlike other wide-eyed idealists, she comes off as entirely genuine.

Not surprisingly, the world isn’t eager to sign up for her novel approach of peace through submission to a loving authority. It doesn’t just come from grumpy old men who only want women to make babies and sandwiches, either. Even among other women, her ideas are challenged and deconstructed throughout the story.

What does it even mean to submit to a loving authority?

Why is she so sure that it’ll work in the world outside her idyllic homeland?

How are men supposed to approach this concept?

How far is she willing to go to implement her ideas?

These are all difficult questions that get asked throughout the story. Wonder Woman doesn’t avoid these questions, but she doesn’t get a chance to answer them either. Even though she is celebrated by many, nobody seems capable of embracing her ideology as completely as her.

To further complicate this challenge, Nazis enter the picture. Trust me, it’s not as shallow as it sounds. The story isn’t built around Wonder Woman acting like Captain America, traveling the world and punching Nazis. In fact, the way she handles her enemies in this story is very different to the methods she used in the “Wonder Woman” movie. However, that’s where the story gains both complications and nuance.

Through a few flashbacks and side-plots, we get to see how Wonder Woman’s ideology confronts something that’s completely antithetical to everything she stands for. Initially, it looks like her approach works. She’s so compassionate and so empathetic that she can take violent, hate-filled Nazis and redeem their souls. That’s where the complications come in.

In both the events that unfolded in the past and those that play out in the present, we see shortcoming of Wonder Woman’s ideals. It’s not that someone taints or disproves them. As the conflict plays out, we see how the components necessary to make her ideology work aren’t as abundant as they are in her homeland. As a result, Wonder Woman pays a price for her idealism and it’s a steep, heartbreaking price.

Not all of it is a direct result of her ideology, though. Wonder Woman also deals with a devious adversary in Dr. Psycho, who effectively turns her ideals against her. He doesn’t just question or deconstruct the merits of submission to a loving authority. He manipulates them to his own ends, which plays right into the hands of her critics.

It’s tragic in that it leads to heartache for Wonder Woman and her friends, but it stops short of breaking her. This is Wonder Woman, after all. Loss, defeat, and criticism do not break her. No mortal or God can break her. Those are her words, not mine. These challenges, however, put her in a difficult position where she has to confront unpleasant truths.

Without spoiling too many plot points, I’ll note that Wonder Woman comes to realize that there are grater complexities to loving submission than she ever could’ve realized. She sees first-hand how difficult it is to get someone to willingly submit in a world where weakness can invite harm, exploitation, and injustice. Just preaching her message isn’t enough. By not doing more, it costs her and those she cares about.

In terms of the larger narrative, “Wonder Woman Earth One: Volume 2” is a wonderfully effective evolution of the world that Morrison and Paquette created. Along the way, the story continues to embrace the unique principles of the original iteration of Wonder Woman that Marston crafted in 1942.

Not entirely, that is.

If there’s any shortcoming to the narrative, it’s how incomplete it feels at the end. It’s not a cliff-hanger, but there are many lingering plot threads that don’t get resolved. Granted, it says on the final page that there is a Volume 3 planned for this series. Given the two-year gap in between this book and its predecessor, the wait seems nothing short of agonizing.

Even with those dangling threads, “Wonder Woman Earth One: Volume 2” is still a complete Wonder Woman story that’s unlike anything you’ll get in the movies or comics. If I had to score it, I would give it a 9 out of 10. The lack of resolution at the end is the only thing keeping it from a perfect score. It still gets so many things right about who Wonder Woman is and why she’s so endearing.

The fact that she can be endearing while retaining the radical spirit that Marston had envisioned helps make “Wonder Woman Earth One: Volume 2” all the more remarkable. She’s not just a fierce warrior woman. She’s the personification of a different approach to gender, power, and love. It may seem bizarre and kinky to us, but it has powerful implications for people of any gender.

It doesn’t go overboard with the BDSM undertones, nor does it focus heavily on gender politics. They are mentioned, but not forced into the plot. There are things Wonder Woman does that feminists, conservatives, and BDSM fans can get behind. At every turn, she carries herself as someone who is willing to embrace everyone. It’s that unconditional, universal compassion that makes her Wonder Woman.

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Filed under comic book reviews, gender issues, superhero comics, superhero movies, Wonder Woman

The following is a review I did for PopMatters for “The Life of Captain Marvel #4.”

Carol Danver’s Past Has a Twist in “The Life of Captain Marvel #4”

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October 18, 2018 · 6:36 pm

The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for “What If? Punisher #1.” Enjoy!

‘What If? Punisher #1’ Toys With Spider-Man’s Concept Of Power And Responsibility

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October 11, 2018 · 5:28 pm

Jack’s Quick Pick Comic: What If? Punisher #1

Every Wednesday, a new batch of comics comes out and for comic fans like me, it’s the biggest highlight of the week that doesn’t involve ice cream and whiskey. Within that batch of comics, it’s hard find the gems that really stand out. That’s why every week, I pick out a comic that I feel warrants extra praise.

This week, my quick pick is “What If? Punisher #1.” Now, this may seem like an odd selection. In fact, this comic is very much an anomaly. There was once a time where Marvel had an ongoing “What If?” series that basically offered alternate history takes on iconic characters and stories.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about how these stories are handled. For the most part, they’re hit or miss. They’re either really good or really bad. Rarely, if ever, are they fleshed out stories.

What If? Punisher #1” finds a way to stand out because it does more than speculate on what would happen to Spider-Man if he chose a slightly different path. It actually explores the entire premise that with great power comes great responsibility. It even makes the case that the mainline Spider-Man in the long-running “Amazing Spider-Man” series is wholly irresponsible in his methods.

This is an idea that I’ve actually explored before. I once made the argument that Spider-Man is the most inept hero of all time. I got a lot of hate for that piece, mostly by long-time Spider-Man fans. I don’t blame them for a second. However, this comic actually takes some of the concepts I discussed and puts them into a cohesive story.

It doesn’t radically reinvent Peter Parker or Spider-Man. It also doesn’t radically alter his origin. He still fails to stop a burglar that goes onto murder his Uncle Ben. From that tragedy, he learns that critical lesson about power and responsibility. The only difference in this timeline is that great responsibility means killing his enemies, just like the Punisher.

It’s a line that the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man doesn’t dare cross most of the time. In nearly every famous iteration of Spider-Man, Peter makes clear that he does not kill. However, “What If? Punisher #1” makes the case that not only is this irresponsible. It actually played a part in hurting his loved ones.

How that happens and how it makes this case is something I won’t spoil. Since this is a “What If?” comic, though, there’s not room to dig deeper. There are more than a few gaps and oversights, but most of that is due to logistics rather than merit. At the very least, this comic asks some pretty damning questions about how Spider-Man approaches power and responsibility.

Even though most “What If?” comics are quickly forgotten and have no impact on the actual canon, this issue is worthy of my pick because the concept is so intriguing. It’s too brief and very much incomplete, but the ideas it presents are pretty remarkable. Not all Spider-Man fans will like it, but it’ll definitely get them thinking.

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The following is a review I wrote for “Return of Wolverine #1” for PopMatters. Enjoy!

Healing and Nuance Amidst the Violence in ‘Return of Wolverine #1’

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September 20, 2018 · 4:41 pm

The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for “Scarlet #1.” Enjoy!

Evolving Revolutions in a Devolving World: ‘Scarlet #1’

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August 30, 2018 · 4:22 pm

A Sweet (Atypical) Love Story In “Sugar”

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Not every love story begins with a daring rescue followed by a witty exchange, culminating in an act of passionate lovemaking. Fairy tales and romantic comedies tend to present an obscenely skewed picture of how love actually manifests. In the same way porn gives fanciful depictions of sex, most love stories present an idealized, but flawed understanding of romance.

To be fair, though, love in the real world tends to lack that magical nuance. That’s why those fanciful depictions have so much appeal in the first place. It’s also why “Sugar,” the latest slice-of-life graphic novel from Matt Hawkins and Jenni Cheung, brings something interesting to the world of romance.

It doesn’t involve superheroes. It doesn’t involve elaborate emotional entanglements, either. It’s just a unique, engaging, and distinctly sexy story that resonates in the current year. This being the same creative team behind “Swing,” another novel love story that I lauded earlier this year, the bar is higher than most.

While I’ll won’t say “Sugar” is better than “Swing,” it has plenty to offer for those looking for a different kind of love story. This is not one of those boy-meets-girl or girl-crushes-on-cute-guy narratives that follows a familiar script. It doesn’t try to reinvent the genre, either. Instead, it takes two characters who find themselves in frustrating, but believable predicaments and has them find each other in a unique way.

Julia Capello and John Markham aren’t eccentric personalities with extreme quirks. Julia is a 23-year-old college student working multiple jobs, constantly worrying about tuition and her financially struggling mother. It’s not a ground-breaking basis for a young woman, but it never comes off as overly-tragic. Hers is a story that many young people today can relate to.

The same goes for John, a middle-aged businessman who thought he did everything right. He married his high-school love, created a thriving business, and played by the rules that men believe they’re supposed to follow. Then, out of nowhere, he finds out his wife is cheating on him and she serves him with divorce papers. In an instant, everything he thinks he knows about love is shattered.

These are two people with significant emotional deficits. Julia makes it clear that being alone doesn’t sit well with her. Her love of romance movies and her reactions to her roommates kinky antics with her boyfriend make that apparent. John is broken and lonely, needing a new connection to fill the void that his ex-wife left in his heart.

How they come together isn’t that romantic, in terms of logistics. Their first interaction is an otherwise forgettable joke in diner. However, their paths eventually cross again, this time with much sexier interactions. Instead of turning into a traditional relationship, though, these two follow a different path.

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This is where “Sugar” twists the standard romantic narrative. Instead of two people coming together in moments that go onto inspire Taylor Swift songs, they end up following a much messier path. John, who is still very hung up on his wife, doesn’t jump into another relationship. Instead, he seeks an “arrangement,” of sorts.

Instead of an actual girlfriend, he asks Julia to be her sugar baby. That’s a term that exists in the real world and often gets conflated with prostitution. In fact, that’s a common refrain throughout “Sugar.” Julia goes out of her way to belabor the fact that she’s not just exchanging sex for money. It’s worth belaboring too because that’s not the crux of their arrangement.

Yes, the arrangement does involve sex.

Yes, the arrangement does involve activities associated with dating and relationship.

No, the arrangement does not involve the promise of marriage, kids, and a white picket fence.

No, the arrangement does not involve contracts, dungeons, and bondage in the mold of “50 Shades of Grey.”

In practice, it doesn’t necessarily convey the traits of an epic love story. It doesn’t depict that of a kinky porno, either. The arrangement between Julia and John serves a defined purpose that benefits them both.

John is someone who has spent most of his life in a relationship. Being alone for him is untenable. Julia is someone who clearly wants intimacy, but struggles to fit it into her hectic life. The arrangement they pursue together fulfills them both in a particular way. John gets companionship. Julia gets intimacy and some badly-needed financial support.

If that were the only result of the arrangement, though, there wouldn’t be much of a story. It doesn’t take long before Julia and John encounter various complications to their arrangement. Emotional entanglements do enter the picture. Some of them are a bit predictable, but others are less obvious.

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There’s an underlying sense that neither character really understands what they feel for one another. John often finds himself pulled in multiple directions by his emotions whereas Julia tends to make more assumptions than she should. It makes for an eventful emotional journey, which leads to some interesting choices in the end.

When all is said and done, “Sugar” comes off as a real love story, but in an indirect sort of way. It take a strange, meandering path to get to that point, but it still gets there. While a second volume of the story is teased at the end, the story feels complete. There’s a sense that both Julia and John take a step forward in their lives, both together and as individuals.

There are a number of flaws with how “Sugar” goes about guiding Julia and John through the story, though. Neither character has much of a supporting cast. Both Julia and John are surrounded by archetypes with the personality depth of meathead jocks from 80s teen movies.

John’s business partner, Richard, is basically a well-dressed frat boy whose only role is to present the idea of an “arrangement.” His ex-wife, Karen, is even less developed. She is the personification of everything that rabid anti-feminists dread, a callous bitch who preys on the emotions of rich men while indulging her hedonistic proclivities on the side.

Julia’s supporting cast isn’t much better. Aside from a roommate who constantly encourages her to get laid and bosses that see her as nothing more than a cog with a pretty face, there’s nobody that really complements her. The people around her are just extra and bring little to the table.

On top of that, there are times when Julia and John rely too heavily on tired tropes. John has a few moments where he tries to be a White Knight and Julia has a few moments where she tries to be overly independent to the point of being an asshole about it. While these parts of the story can be eye-rolling at times, they don’t take away from the overall story.

At its core, “Sugar” is still a love story. It’s just a very different kind of love story. It takes two people in need of love and brings them together, albeit in an unorthodox way. It still works, though. It still evokes just the right emotion without resorting to princesses and dragon-slaying.

If I had to score “Sugar,” I would give it a 7 out of 10. It’s a solid, above-average story that applies just the right amount of romance and sex appeal. It has a novel concept that has plenty of potential, sexy and otherwise. It lacks the various support structures necessary to make it feel complete. Compared to “Swing,” it doesn’t quite measure up in terms of refinement.

Unlike “Swing,” this is a love story that feels more definitive. It’s concise, streamlined, and genuine in ways that few love stories dare to be in an era where one or more love interests has to be a superhero. Hawkins and Cheung once again achieve something special and sexy with “Sugar.” It may never be an epic love story that inspires a James Cameron movie, but it doesn’t have to in order to be sweet.

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