26 Aug 2009

Four-Colour Yesteryears: Wonder Woman - The Emma Peel Years

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at the periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

By Rob N

Towards the end of the late Sixties DC decided to undertake a serious revamp of their existing superhero line of titles. Marvel had steadily gained ground during the previous decade to overtake DC as the most popular brand of comic books. Part of Marvel's success was due to their more realistic (for the period) characters and stories and the introduction of complex interwoven continuity. DC comics in the Sixties by comparison hadn't evolved from the earlier format of ludicrous tales of super dogs, freckle-faced side-kicks with comical names, wacky villains and two-dimensional characters that seemed to reflect a comfortable and outdated 1950s view of America.

Seemingly overnight DC made major changes to its big titles in a brave attempt to make them more realistic to an older readership. The Teen Titans accidentally allowed someone to die and subsequently they got rid of their costumes, vowed not to use their super powers unless absolutely necessary, and became a kind of Mission: Impossible team in bland grey overalls. Batman lost his rogues gallery of colourful villains and became (the now familiar) grim Dark Knight who tackled ordinary criminals. Green Lantern teamed up with Green Arrow and Black Canary and began to tackle various social issues such as heroin addiction, ecological concerns, the persecution of Native Americans. Perhaps most drastic of all, Wonder Woman gave up her powers, studied martial arts, opened a swinging Sixties boutique and became an Emma Peel clone from issue #179 onwards.

The TV series The Avengers had proved very popular in the US and the Diana Rigg character of Emma Peel became the template for a new (Women's Lib) version of Wonder Woman in the early Seventies. The bizarre super villains disappeared and, after Steve Trevor was killed off (a liberated woman doesn't need a boyfriend taking up space in her comic) for the first time along with the Amazons of Paradise Island leaving Earth to travel to a different dimension, Diana Prince was taken on by a blind martial arts expert called I-Ching. He taught her to fight in much the same way that Stick would teach Daredevil in the 1980s when Frank Miller revamped his origin.

Wonder Woman resigned from the Justice League and became a sort of roving freelance secret agent, tackling James Bond style villains. With the loss of her powers she no longer seemed to have a problem with killing people. Long before she broke the neck of Maxwell Lord in Infinite Crisis, she was happily machine-gunning nasty Chinese soldiers on one controversial cover of her comic book. Despite the more realistic approach to the series, early stories were still by and large quite juvenile in an Austin Powers kind of way. The comics now look very dated with mini-skirted dolly birds, bizarrely attired hippies, and laughable Jason King style leading men who were supposed to be hairy-chested studs, probably with the aid of liberal applications of Brut aftershave and big gold medallions.

A brief two-part storyline reunited Diana Prince with the Amazons when Ares, God of War, decided to invade Paradise Island with Diana being summoned to lead her people into battle while her mother lay in a coma. Essentially the plot harkened back to the 300 Spartans battling the Persian army at Thermopylae, as the outnumbered women faced a numerically superior force. Diana of course wins in the end.

Towards the end of this 26-issue run deadlines became a problem and there were several reprint issues. Unfortunately the reprint material was taken from the new look run and therefore readers found themselves shelling out money for stories they had read only a year and a half ago. DC had also opted to increase the price of their comics from 15¢ to 25¢ by adding extra pages of reprint material, usually taken from their Golden Age archives. The price increase proved to be a commercially bad move and the extra pages were quickly removed, allowing for a 5¢ price drop. This became the standard for both Marvel and DC thereafter.

When Denny O'Neill came aboard as writer and editor he seemed keen to push the title into a far darker, more serious place. His two-part story, The Beauty Haters, began in #199 and the cover of that comic must have come as a real shock to both readers and newsagents alike. It was an exquisitely crafted and
striking piece of art by leading paperback illustrator Jeff Jones, but it featured a terrified looking Diana Prince kneeling on the floor of a stone dungeon, clad only in a thin white night gown, her hands chained to the wall as a menacing hooded executioner with an axe stood in the background guarding her. It was softcore bondage material and it was quite risqué for its time. The next issue continued the trend with a frightened Wonder Woman chained helplessly to a stone slab in the same dungeon as a menacing figure emerged from a dungeon doorway. Dick Giordino became the regular artist from #200 (replacing the hack artist Don Heck who is most famous for ruining all those early issues of the Avengers) and his pencils added a touch of realism to the stories. This dark, gothic look was part of the new DC house style from a period when their covers in particular were very striking. Issues #201 and #202 hinted at how good this comic could have been in later months as O'Neill crafted his first proper ‘new direction’ storyline with great art and a plot in the style of his classic Ra's al Ghul Batman tales. It featured evil Tibetan monks, Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider style trappings, a smattering of the occult, a mercenary Catwoman, and a visit to a swords and sorcery dimension populated by Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (to introduce and launch their own title the following month). It was classic high adventure storytelling and at last the comic seemed to be working. With the O'Neill/Giordino creative team onboard things now looked very promising indeed.

But then DC had a change of heart and with #204 Diana Prince regained her powers, put back on the familiar red and blue bathing costume and we were back to the old style of costumed crime-fighting. Part of this was due to a dip in sales. The new look Wonder Woman had been a step too far for lots of of the faithful DC readers. Many people didn't want their heroes to look ordinary. DC had been ahead of its time. Fifteen years later Alan Moore would be a household name for taking this kind of radical approach to superhero comics, but in the early Seventies fandom wasn't ready for this level of realism. The new look Wonder Woman had also angered the burgeoning feminist scene - although radical feminists were hardly DC's target market, certain feminist magazines (in particular Gloria Steinem's Ms) had railed against the de-powering of Wonder Woman. This, they argued, was typical of male writers who didn't like the idea of a woman being the equal of Superman and Batman. They seemed to miss the point that DC was applying the same re-conceptualisation approach to all of its
titles. Even the untouchable Superman had seen his powers reduced to a fraction of his previous might. But DC became nervous of the adverse publicity and replaced the O'Neill/Giordino team just as it was about to actually deliver some stories on a par with the classic O'Neill/Adams Batman and Green Lantern comics.

Looking back, the 26-issue run is something of an oddity, even by DC standards where revamps are now a regular occurrence. Virtually an entire comics line had been transformed from storylines reminiscent of the Batman TV series to something more in keeping with Brian Michael Bendis’ approach to Daredevil. That it didn't work was due to a readership that wasn't ready for it and a series of writers who didn't really know how to handle it. In retrospect it was like DC asking Chuck Dixon to write Watchmen.

1 comment:

vinidici said...

Over all, an engaging and informative article; but I have to take exception to your having referenced Don Heck as a "hack artist who ruined those issues of The Avengers."

Now really, who at the time was ready and able to follow up on an act like Jack Kirby's? John Buscema wasn't yet working at Marvel. Kirby had been long spread out with overwork and had to keep up with his other work at Marvel; other artists in "the Bullpen" were tied up with about as much work as they could handle. Don Heck was available but probably didn't even ask for the assignment. No matter what you and other Heck detractors say about his artwork, he kept both Iron Man and The Avengers afloat when Kirby, after an early start on both series, bowed out. I found his Iron Man and Avengers artwork to be the best of his career, and far better than many of the hands who've taken on both titles from the 1990's and up.

Don Heck never asked to become a superhero genre artist in the first place. He worked in other genres like Westerns and detective / crime stories, etc., and his artwork was best suited for those realms. Agreed, Heck was no Kirby and no Buscema, either, but he was given what was available to him at his artistic peak (again, as Kirby's successor on Iron Man and The Avengers) and did a more than adequate job. The always competent stalwart Larry Lieber might have been up to the task in Heck's stead, but frankly, between him and Larry, Don was the better artist, as Larry's own brother, Stan Lee, must have concluded before he shackled, chained, and locked Don to the storyboard desk of Iron Man and The Avengers.

By the way, perhaps I should read your article a third time, but I don't recall your having said word one about Mike Sekowsky. Of all the artists in the industry, Sekowsky and Heck were probably most alike and they both had lengthy tenures in their respective companies' flagship superhero team books (Sekowsky on JLA, of course.) Now, in my opinion, Don Heck was better than Sekowsky, artwise; and a lot of unkind and even unfair things have been said in fandom about Sekowsky to the effect that HE was "a hack," which Mike WASN'T. Sekowsky was more than competent on JLA, and his talent peaked with the launch of, and his stint on, the "Emma Peel" Wonder Woman (not to mention his work on Supergirl.) And I just find it ironic how that you would dismiss Don Heck as "a hack" while saying nothing about the very guy who helped create the "Emma Peel" period, who again was not unlike Heck in a lot of ways, professionally, though again I maintain that Heck's artistic talent was superior to Sekowsky's.