According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no other comic-book character has lasted as long.”
Wonder Woman made her debut in comics in 1941, and was first on a comic book cover in 1942, decked out in a golden tiara, a red bustier, blue underpants and knee-high, red leather boots – the perfect fighting outfit, as men would have it.
Wonder Woman’s origin story as commonly related is that she was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta on the all-female island nation of Themyscira, somewhere in the Aegean. The island, invisible to mortals, was created by the goddesses as a place of refuge for female Amazons. Over the years, however, the story of Wonder Woman’s “origins” have been revised and embellished. Now one of my favorite authors, Leigh Bardugo, has taken up the challenge, as part of a series in which “super hero icons meet megastar authors.”
Bargudo begins her story when Diana is 16 – before she became “Wonder Woman” – and was still living on the island of Themyscira. Diana sort of has a Pinocchio complex. Like that fictional character who was created from wood and wants most of all to be a real boy, Diana wants to prove to the other Amazons on her island that she is more than just a girl fashioned from clay. She wants to do deeds worthy of an Amazon, like her sisters, who are all battle-proven warriors.
The island is so idyllic though, that it’s hard for her to find ways to show her mettle, especially given the rules for living on the island:
“You could not stop the mortal tide of life and death, and the island must never be touched by it. There were no exceptions. No human could be brought to Themyscira, even if it meant saving a life. Breaking that rule meant only one thing: exile.”
But when Diana witnesses a shipwreck close to her island, and sees a girl about her age who will die if she isn’t rescued, Diana feels compelled to break the rules. She pulls the girl, Alia, on land and hides her in a cave. She tries to remember what she needs to do to help a mortal, but can only remember the “Dire Warnings” about mortals conveyed by her mother and tutors: “War. Torture. Genocide. Pollution. Bad Grammar.”
Initially, Diana intended to help Alia by finding a boat, and secretly getting her off the island before anyone finds out. But there is no hiding from omnipotent goddesses, and before long, the island is beset by a host of ills that puts everyone in peril.
Diana goes to see the Oracle who tells her that Alia, also 16, is actually haptandra, a “warbringer,” born of the same line as Helen of Troy, who was herself sired by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. The Oracle explains that when a warbringer is born, war and destruction are inevitable, with this influence peaking when the warbringer turns 17.
The Oracle makes a bargain with Diana: she can go home and leave Alia to die, and all will be healed and forgotten. Or, if she can get the warbringer to the spring at Therapne in Greece, where Helen rests, and have Alia purified there by two weeks time (before Alia’s 17th birthday). Then, the Oracle tells her, the warbringer’s power would be leashed “and never passed to another.” If Diana takes this second option and succeeds, the Oracle will also keep Diana’s crime a secret, and the island will be restored to health. On the other hand, if Diana fails, disaster will result.
The Oracle suggests Diana take the first option: “You are not a hero. You are not battle tested. This quest is far beyond your skills and strength.”
Of course this is all Diana needs to hear to take up the challenge, especially because if she could prevent not just one war but countless future wars, “that was a deed worth of an Amazon.” She resolves she will not fail, and she will not let fear choose her path.
The rest of the story tells of the perilous quest to get Alia to Therapne, by way of New York City, as it unexpectedly happens. There they join up with Alia’s attractive older brother Jason.
There is plenty of humor in the book. For example, when Diana (now using the name Diana Prince) tries to explain to Alia that she is a “warbringer,” Alia objects “I’m not into gaming.” When they are almost run down by a bicyclist in Battery Park, Alia yells “Jerk!” The bicyclist gives Alia the finger. Diana asks, puzzled, “Is he an enemy? “No,” Alia answers: “He’s a New Yorker.”
The humor turns a little sophomoric, however, when friends of Alia and Jason enter the picture. With Alia’s best friend Nim and Jason’s best friend Theo, the story starts to seem like an episode of Scooby-Doo, the cartoon series in which four teenagers, often bumbling and inappropriately silly and childish, solve mysteries involving supernatural creatures.
But Bardugo’s skill at creating memorable characters is still recognizable, especially with respect to Diana. Diana is good-hearted, well-intentioned, open to new ideas, and inspirational. At one point she reassures Alia, who feels bad because she is a “warbringer”: “We can’t help the way we’re born. We can’t help what we are, only what life we choose to make for ourselves.” And there is this lesson Diana newly learns and shares with Jason: “Might does not make a hero. You can build a thousand soldiers, and not one will have a hero’s heart.”
Diana has discovered something else too, that she was never told on her island: “These people, these mortals – fragile, foolish, brave beyond all common sense – deserved a chance at peace.”
But time is running out for them to get to Therapne, and there is every indication they will fail.
Evaluation: I haven’t been into comic book characters for many years, but I made an exception for Bardugo because she is so good at making her protagonists interesting and nuanced. They are all aware that they are at the cusp of their futures, and want desperately to make their mark and realize their dreams. Bardugo makes their yearning palpable and poignant. The pacing is well managed and the plot consistently interesting, even with its “comic book” aspects.
Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017