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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mike Deodato's Wonder Woman in the Extreme '90s

Everyone seems to unanimously agree that 1987's Wonder Woman #1 relaunch (credited to George PĂ©rez, Len Wein, and Greg Potter) gave the character a much-needed revival and was hailed as a critical and commercial success. Depending on how closely you were following Diana of Themyscira's exploits in the late 80s/early 90s, you probably remember her appearing all over the DCU, the re-introduction of legacy Wonder Woman characters, and the War of the Gods cross-over. So how did Wonder Woman fare following that? By the mid-90s, comicdom had reached the apex of the 'Extreme 90s' and the market was overflowing with Bad Girl anti-heroes and X-book knock-offs. In response to this, new penciller Mike Deodato came on board with issue #90 (1994). 

With the Wonder Woman film now breaking box offices records and her popularity at an all-time high, Michael Campochiaro explores a time when she wasn't handled nearly as progressively or sensitively as she is today.



Mike Deodato's Wonder Woman: long legs, tiny waist, gravity-defying breasts, and of course a thong. Must be the '90s.

Everything you've ever heard about '90s comics is true. The obscenely large muscles, the balloon breasts, and the massive guns. The excessive amount of pouches on everybody's clothing. The gratuitous, leering obsession with the female form. Everything, and I mean everything, was Extreme!!!! It's all true, which is partly why I drifted from comics for a while during the decade.

Don't get me wrong, I loved and still love me some classic '90s Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Marc Silverstei art. Those guys were superb. Plus you had Grant Morrison's JLA and Mark Waid's Flash, and also writers like Chuck Dixon seemingly churning out seven books a month, all of them solidly crafted and well written. But the decade is often remembered for the excesses listed above.

When I recently read the collected edition Wonder Woman by Mike Deodato I assumed I was in for more of the cliched '90s comic book tropes, including an abundance of brokeback poses and lots of violence and mayhem. And Deodato certainly delivers. Boy, does he ever. Make no mistake, he's a talented comic book artist, with a real flair for dynamic and kinetic panel designs and gloriously over the top fight scenes. And William Messner-Loebs, who writes all of the issues in the collection, matches Deodato's energy with crisp dialogue and a propulsive forward momentum throughout. There's a b-movie feel to the run, with Messner-Loebs telling fast-paced, action-packed stories, and Deodato providing the cult movie exploitation-style gonzo art.

The trade collects Wonder Woman #0, #85, and #90-100, plus Legends of the DC Universe #4-5. That's fifteen issues of prime early '90s era Wonder Woman and all that entails, including a new and absurdly revealing costume and increasingly objectified depictions of the female form over the course of the run. I'll discuss some story elements here, but this won't be a straight review of the plots. Instead I'll focus on Deodato's art. After all, it's his name in the title of the collected edition and it's his art that's most associated with this era of the character.

I don't even know what to say about this choice of camera angle. How about,"Frank Cho would be proud?"

As was de rigueur in those days, women are usually drawn posing in ridiculously contorted positions, both in action and in static scenes, for maximum extreme objectification. I lost count of how many times Diana and her Amazonian sister Artemis -- who wrestles the mantle of Wonder Woman from Diana during the run -- stood with rear ends extended impossibly high in the air behind them, backs arched dramatically, while at the same time pushing their chests forward with gusto. Deodato's art on Wonder Woman reminds me at times of Silvestri's Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine from earlier in the '90s. No stranger to dramatic exaggeration or highly stylized sexuality in his art, Silvestri still looks tame when compared to the way Deodato deploys both. Of course, if you bring Jim Balent's '90s Catwoman into the conversation, Deodato's style suddenly looks as innocent as Curt Swan's. So it's all about degrees of "Extreme!!!!" when it comes to '90s "Extreme!!!!" artists, I suppose. I also get a strong Norm Breyfogle feel at times from Deodato here, with characters dramatically leaping across the page, nearly flying right out of panels and into your lap.

Before reading the issues, the only thing I knew about the run was that *this* was the infamous era when Diana wore an insanely tiny thong. Seriously, she must have been awfully uncomfortable fighting in that thing. Even as the most famous woman in comics, Diana still isn't immune to being objectified by both readers and creators. Her costume has often been derided as "skimpy" but rarely did it look quite so revealing until Deodato arrived. Not only does she start off sporting the teeny tiny thong, but after losing her title as Wonder Woman in "The Contest" Diana dons one of the most '90s outfits imaginable. It consists of hot pants and a cropped leather jacket that's always open to expose her gravity-defying breasts, which are barely contained within a BDSM-style bra. It's risible attire for the preeminent female superhero, but dammit if Diana doesn't pull it off. Certainly, Deodato makes her look great, but it's all so unseemly in its overt sexualization that you can't help but cringe. Deodato also draws her as lithe and strong, with a confident gait and a smoldering intensity. In those regards, he does justice to her iconic status. It's just that he does so while also outfitting her in a thong, and then in the so-'90s-it-hurts bondage bra.

One of the top items on the '90s checklist: Gratuitously torn clothing revealing even more female flesh. Click here for image [NSFW]


With Artemis though, Deodato really outdoes himself. She too charges into battle in the most microscopic thong imaginable. Seriously, it's hardly even there. It makes Diana's look like boxer briefs. Artemis' legs are ludicrously long, while her absurdly large breasts are usually spilling out of her tops. They're also always standing at attention, whether she's sitting, running, or flipping upside down. Her waist is impossibly small. Her measurements must be the stuff of legend. Basically, she's drawn in a way that will satisfy every adolescent boy's fantasy. Yet, in a lot of ways, the art fits with Messner-Loebs characterization. Artemis is hilarious throughout precisely because she's a tough Amazonian supermodel-warrior with no sense of humor who's constantly flummoxed or downright annoyed by all of the idiot humans around her. Consequently Deodato renders her in permanent withering scowl mode. She's a hoot and her interactions with the kind and calm Diana are a highlight of the book.

Still, at times Deodato also lets the prurient art style run amok. There's no better example than when Artemis is brutally beaten by the White Magician. Artemis' Wonder Woman costume is ripped to shreds and she's tossed around like a well-endowed rag doll. And of course she maintains her alluring sensuality even when being pummeled. It reminds you of the "Death of Superman" showdown with Doomsday, except here it's filtered through a pure fanboy drool-worthy style. Eventually, her thong is just a string of fabric, held together by a few worn threads, and her bustier is torn to pieces, exposing huge portions of her breasts. In fact, Deodato strategically places the rips where nipples should appear—but if he was going to draw them in, DC editorial must've nixed the idea. Nevertheless, it's gratuitously executed, obviously meant to titillate. You can imagine the slobbering '90s male readers stammering, "Look, you can see her boobs!!" Ugh.

While William Messner-Loebs story arcs are engaging and often well written -- although a Boston mafia war plot is a bizarre fit for Wonder Woman -- it's the Deodato art that sells the book and is ultimately what led me to try it out. I've heard so much about this era over the years -- some of it positive, much of it negative -- that I finally had to judge it for myself. How do I rate it? Certainly not in the upper echelon of Wonder Woman stories, but it's still a jaunty and exciting yarn. It's solid '90s comics, and overall quite fun. My opinions on the art are more complicated. The adolescent comic book fanboy that still resides somewhere in the darkest nether-regions of my soul would blush at Deodato's art, but still enjoy it. The adult comic book reader I've become finds the overly sexualized style both problematic and tiresome, but also still appreciates Deodato's talent for drawing exciting superhero action adventure. Besides the elements of '90s excess, the art is compelling and energetic.

Artemis: scowling, twisting, and contorting while wearing very little clothing and kicking copious amounts of butt.

In many ways the era this collection comes out of seems to be a curio of sorts -- a time when DC was far less progressive in their visual representations of their Amazonian Princess, and instead dressed her in what amounts to butt-floss and posed her like a soft-core porn actress. It's strange stuff, for sure. It's still worth a look though, both for historical perspective and for some entertaining art. Just keep in mind it's also filled with cheesecake. In today's more progressive era with an increased sensitivity to issues of equality, representation, and the importance of symbolism in fictional portrayals, this '90s era feels like a hundred years ago. That's probably because in Patty Jenkins' new Wonder Woman film, Gal Gadot gives such an exceptionally inspiring performance. She perfectly embodies the strength, compassion and love inherent in Diana. I'm a big fan of that version of Wonder Woman -- the one most associated these days with George Perez, Nicola Scott, Gail Simone, and Greg Rucka, to name a few creators. Still, it's worth remembering a time when the character was presented more as a pouting supermodel in barely-there clothing than as a true champion of the oppressed in more warrior-appropriate body armor. If only to gauge the representational progress made over the years. Diana has come a long way, clearly.

As a postscript I'd like to give special mention to Brian Bolland's gorgeous covers from this era, many of which are included in this run. His Diana is still sexy like Deodato's version, but Bolland dials down the objectification aspect. Instead, his Diana is never anything less than beautiful, empowered, and fierce. It's worth noting that he designed the roundly disliked black hot pants and leather jacket outfit, but even he didn't like it. It seems he was following directions from editorial. So, if DC is reading this, please know that I would buy the hell out of of a Brian Bolland Wonder Woman covers collected edition. A quick online search reveals that he did covers for issues 0, 63–92, and 94–100. The slim collection could be fleshed out with cover sketches and maybe even commentary from Bolland and/or editorial. I realize this isn't likely to be published, but I can dream, can't I? I'll conclude this piece with a few examples of the stunning Bolland covers included in the Deodato collected edition.

One of several Bolland action covers featuring Wonder Woman battling various aliens and other assorted creatures.




Diana looks nothing short of majestic here.




Here's a side-by-side of Bolland's preliminary sketch for #90 and the final version of the cover.



-Michael

Michael Campochiaro is a seasoned veteran of retro pop culture journalism and has written for Sequart, The After Movie Dinner, Spectrum Culture and his own blog, Words Seem Out of Place.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this article! I stopped reading comics around this time, as a teen. I went back and re-read a lot of these as an adult, but when they were coming out I found them so unappealing.

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    1. Thanks, glad you liked it! We're probably around the same age and I too dropped out of comics for a while in the '90s. And like you, while I found a lot of this stuff unappealing back then, I'm now more attracted to it. I still don't love this Wonder Woman run as much as other great runs with the character, but it's a lot of fun and plays with some interesting concepts. Plus Deodato's art is wildly entertaining!

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