In which the blogger rounds off a discussion of Wonder Woman #8 which began here;
Whatever you do, just don't ask questions. Sense is the real enemy in Wonder Woman #8. As long as you keep jumping from panel to panel, turning from page to page, you might just get away with it. After all, Casting Shadows does contain perhaps the single most innovative and unsettling version of the underworld ever to have appeared in a super-book. That's no little achievement in itself. A foreboding, protean shadow-world of ever-changing land- and city-scapes, composed of the souls of the dead as marshaled according to the schemes of its God Hades, there's an air of anxious unease bordering upon terror which radiates from Cliff Chiang's pages. As a backdrop for Wonder Woman's army-of-two invasion of the after-life, it's a notable, unsettling achievement. Just don't go back and re-read the comic in an attempt to discover how this hell works, because all you'll find is smart-sounding gobbledygook. Everything in the domain of Hades is "made of souls", we're told, with the form that they combine to create being "governed by Hades' whims and imagination." It's an interesting conceit, but then it's further complicated by the revelation that the dead aren't "being used" by the God of the Dead, but rather choosing to collaborate with him. As Hermes "explains";
"Imagine dying, and gaining the ability to be anything, Anything for just a piece of time, knowing that your time to reinvent is your forever. Not existing in a world, but being the world .. "
It all sounds rather poetically convincing, but scratch at the words and there's so many questions that even the illusion of logic collapses. What does the second sentence in the above actually mean? What's this "piece of time" he's describing? Indeed, who are these dead, and why have they ended up here? Why would they be so willing to spend eternity being forever rearranged as part of the underworld's furniture? Do they retain anything of what we would regard as individuality? As an idea, the world-made-of-souls is at first glance thoroughly compelling. But don't concentrate on it, because it just comes to pieces in your hands, with the questions so outnumbering the facts that the story itself starts to tear like the most fragile of spiders webs.
A single mystery, or even a cluster of them, is one thing, but Azzarello's scripts for Wonder Woman are often created from little else. A string of enigmas can suggest an air of mystery, but a constant stream of imprecision and confusion simply wears the reader out. Weaving together an entire world from a shower of such shallow and showy stuff produces a foundation for the narrative which all too easily fractures. And so, if Hades is in such control of this world, why does he need to play with Hermes and Wonder Woman as he appears to? His creations seem remarkably easy to defeat, his own ambitions strangely simple to side-step. His form as a skinless warrior, for example, is quite useless in defeating Diana; could he construct no more powerful and effective a form to take? Is he lulling the visitors into relaxing their guard? Is he genuinely unable to fight Hermes and Wonder Woman off with the entirety of Hell at his command? Is he trying to somehow direct them towards Zola's imprisonment? In the absence of any explanation at all, the mysteries wearingly pile up, and the strain on the reader's willingness to care increases and increases upon just looking over the page is a chore. Why ever does Hades first appear in skinless human form, hidden beneath a statue no less, before assuming his identity as a small child with a candle-topped head? Why does he attempt to so harm Diana when his plan is really to take her as his Queen? The answer, it seems, is that Azzarello simply doesn't care for why things happen so much as he enjoys the prospect of events looking interesting and compelling. In short, it's all about a particularly fan-pleasing fusion of horror and cool. This is spectacle trumping sense, as if the first can only be achieved at the cost of the second, as if the audience doesn't deserve both for their entrance money.
It's a shame that Chiang's expressive, imaginative art should be gilding this spectacular if predominantly benign fraud. His work is beautifully staged, his establishing shots evocative and informing, his fight-scenes choreographed in such a fiercely compelling way that we're almost carried across the thin ice of Azzarello's nonsense. And then the plot staggers onwards, and we're faced with even more questions which no attempt of good-natured collaboration with the writer can answer. (*1) No, Chasing Shadows might as well have been named for its own lack of depth and carelessness, for its willingness to load up the pages with a sequence of look-at-me plot-beats rather than anything as unfashionable as a story. Diana picks weapons; Diana travels to hell; Diana is attacked; Hermes tells Diana to go without him so he can later save her; Diana finds Zola; Diana seems to escape; Diana is shot, according the New 52 doctrine of shock; Diana is left in jeopardy as the cliffhanger arrives: the end. The reason why the new Wonder Woman so often feels hollow is, quite frankly, because it is.
*1:- A poor argument has been removed here on the appreciated advice of Son Of Baldwin. You can see the point, and the speculation it inspired, below in the comments.
And then, at the heart of all this visually fascinating fast-food storytelling is the real cypher of the piece, Wonder Woman herself. Is it a fear of alienating DC's targeted male-boy readership that leads to Diana having so little personality? Is there a concern that anything other than the most blank and by-the-numbers lead draped in the star-spangled pants might raise the shadows of flakker-alienating kitsch and camp? For this Diana has no character at all beyond that of the most stereotypical indomitable hero, lacking even the ironic touches of self-depreciation which marked the Arnies and the Slys at their commercial height. She rarely smiles, she never jokes, she has no personal quirks or even expressions of individuality beyond the flatness of her tone, her persistent melancholia and her preference for ancient weaponry. (Tellingly, Diana's been stuck with the dogged grimness of the piece whereas the various members of her male supporting cast, from Hermes to Hades, get the laugh lines from beginning to end.) Isolate her essential qualities and they're indistinguishable from the checklist which might describe the least interesting action/adventure lead. Replace her with any other humourless hunk-of-power reliant upon archaic weaponry - Conan or Thor would do - and nothing much would need changing beyond a line or two and a total humour-bypass. Yes, we love this simulacra of Wonder Woman for refusing to give in, yes, we admire her for her rescue of Zola, yes, we're inspired by her refusal to put her own well-being before that of the friends. But that's not because we recognise this take on Princess Diana as having a personality of its own. Rather, it's a recognition of the fundamental virtues associated with a particularly thin and yet reassuring role being pushed through a very obvious, you-can-cheer-now-cheap-seats plot.
Azzarello's reinvention of Wonder Woman as Buffy-The-Incredibly-Grumpy-Monster-Slayer has been an absolute triumph of flash over depth. It's not that it's been an unimaginative process, but it's certainly been a hollow one. There's so much there in this new set-up to distract the eye and engage the adrenalin glands, and that's a misdirection made all the more convincing by Cliff Chiang's wonderfully eye-directing, jump-the-plot-holes artwork. But that empty-heartedness which so many folks have noted, that all-calories-no-fibre sense that the comic is exciting and yet strangely unsatisfying? That's what happens when your lead character is a one-dimensional, don't-frighten-the-fanboys, heroic type, it's what gradually dawns when your plots are designed for the sake of the water-cooler moments rather than the sense of it all. It's all impressive work in many ways, but it's not impressive storytelling in anything other than a mechanical fashion. It can be fun, it can be deftly organised, it comes with a host of smart ideas, but it doesn't feel heartfelt and it's certainly not satisfying.
Just don't look back, don't ask questions, don't expect sense to anchor the spectacle or character to inform the cardboard cut-outs, and everything will fine.