Last issue’s worthless, needlessly controversial retcon of the Amazons aside, Wonder Woman has been on quite a streak lately. The series since the New 52 reboot has utilized a neo-noir/gothic horror aesthetic that has a heightened, operatic quality to it, so it is only fitting that for Wonder Woman’s descent into Hell to rescue her friend Zola, pregnant with a child of Zeus, that this issue be both grotesque and dramatic.
The way Cliff Chiang brings to life the realm of Hades, where the souls of the damned are used to construct the world according to his whims, is very eerie, particularly when statues fall away to reveal flayed men and beasts, rippling with tendons and dripping a sticky film. On page seven, Chiang’s reveal of the nature of these ghouls is layed out in a symmetrical panel structure: three panels for Wonder Woman and Hermes musing about serving Hades, mixed with three panels of stone shedding from the dead, before a final wide shot brings the two halves of this micro-story together.
Chiang is, above all else, a pop artist: the way he either creates (including the cover, depicting Wonder Woman wielding twin gold pistols) or plays on iconic images (the trees made of dead men calling to mind Frank Miller’s 300) is downright magnificent. His Wonder Woman has grace and personality beyond Brian Azzarello’s dialogue: a disbelieving quirk of the eyebrow here, a nervous glance there, the cocky, self-assured way she brings up her bracelets when someone fires a gun at her, and the complete calm she displays in battle shows someone comfortable with who they are as a warrior, but not someone immune to emotions. When the action hits, Chiang depicts Wonder Woman flipping over monsters like Xena while cutting them down as she debates the merits of mortal existence with Hades. As cliched as the situation is (“And in its brevity is where life’s importance lies.”), the art manages to make it fresh and interesting.
One of my other favorite images from this issue is a callback to the first, with Zola stepping out of an underworld recreation of her farmhouse, brandishing a rifle and more noticeably pregnant (and wearing sweat pants). It’s a well-paced page, gradually revealing to Wonder Woman, Hermes, and the reader what the situation is, and there’s one neat touch: the shirt Zola wears depicts a wolf. In Greco-Roman mythology, a wolf protects Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, much the same way Wonder Woman protects Zola and her child. If it’s a hint of the story to come, it’s an incredibly subtle one on the part of Azzarello and Chiang (though this is mere conjecture on my part).
The plot for this issue also seems to be a twist on the story of Orpheus, where the musician set off to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld. Like in that story, a condition for the damsel to be released from Hades is met. Turning back also results in tragedy in both stories (though with different circumstances and particulars for Wonder Woman). Much of Azzarello’s writing on this series has been on incorporating more of Greek myth, and its seedier elements, into the superhero adventures of Wonder Woman. It usually works as good as it does here, but last issue sabotaged the idealism behind the character with the revelation that the Amazons of the DC Universe were rapists and child-murderers. Whether that was just a one-off mistake or not remains to be seen, but either way, Cliff Chiang will probably make it look good.