Grounded Realism Meets Mythology In Wonder Woman: Down to Earth

This post is part of A Year Of Wonder, How to Love Comics’ big celebration of Wonder Woman’s 80th anniversary. Find out more and read other posts in this series.

Written by Greg Rucka. Drawn by Drew Johnson. Inked by Ray Snyder. Colours by Trish Mulvihill (#195-197) & Richard and Tanya Horie (#198-200). Letters by Todd Klein.

Writers love returning to Wonder Woman’s roots. Admittedly, this is common in many superhero comics, as authors seek some kind of Edenic purity through a blank-slate return to a character’s early days. But Wonder Woman has had her origins investigated more than most. It often results in great stories, including George Perez’s reinvention, Gail Simone’s The Circle, Grant Morrison’s Earth One and Renae de Liz’s Legend of the Wonder Woman. Yet, sequestering Wonder Woman in these mythological beginnings can have the side-effect of Diana Prince not venturing into the mainland. By focussing upon first contact, such stories neglect how Wonder Woman transports her peaceful mission and mythological roots from Themyscira into the modern World of Man.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.
Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.

This is what Greg Rucka explored in his 2003-2006 run on Wonder Woman. Not that Down to Earth isn’t an easy jumping-on point, as it introduces brand new supporting characters and story-threads for uninitiated readers. His Wonder Woman is not searching for her own identity, so much as opening it to the wider world. Rucka’s first Wonder Woman story was the standalone graphic novel The Hiketeia, wherein a young woman from Gotham pledges an ancient oath for Diana’s protection. Even here, Rucka was not abandoning Wonder Woman’s mythological background, but seeing how modern civilians would adapt towards the honourable codes that Diana embodies.

The same dynamic is explored in Down to Earth, which foregrounds Wonder Woman’s “official” role as Themysciran Ambassador. Unlike the secretive lairs of the Fortress of Solitude or the Batcave, Diana operates out of the Embassy as a “public superhero” and with a full supporting staff. Down to Earth is interested in the architecture that springs up around a superhero “activist” like Diana, not simply in her defeating supervillains, but also how her ideals are received. Down to Earth is even kickstarted by Diana publishing a book – Reflections: A Collections of Essays and Speeches – to help spread her mission of improvement and positivity.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.
Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.

Rucka explored similar “realism” with Ed Brubaker in Gotham Central around the same time. That series spotlighted the Gotham Police Department, and how their realistic protocols and corrupt bureaucracy were overshadowed by Batman and Gotham’s supervillains. Down to Earth is more optimistic, as this Wonder Woman is someone who wants to help as much as possible, splitting her time between superhero calls, UN conferences and a book tour. It’s a story that highlights the complex realistic reactions Wonder Woman would provoke.

Thankfully, Rucka doesn’t confuse being “realistic” with being boring. It may be an authentic look at how Wonder Woman acts as a public figure, but she’s still Wonder Woman, and Rucka doesn’t downplay her mythological aspects. Indeed, much of the humour is found through the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastical elements. Such as Diana’s chef at the embassy, Ferdinand, being a Minotaur (or as he explains, a “Kitho-o-taur”, since he grew up outside Kithiria). Or how Ferdinand cooks exclusively vegetarian meals, partially due to Diana’s eco-friendly policies, but also because she can talk to animals.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.
Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.

Similarly, the Greek Gods appear in Down to Earth, but are redesigned to be more modern and fallible. Instead of Zeus being a wise grandmaster, he is chastised for his lewd wandering eye, which itself is faithful to ancient mythology. While Zeus is stuck in old customs, other Gods recognise the changing world beneath them. They must adapt to survive, as Ares tells Wonder Woman. Ares thinks Diana should understand more than most, since she has “feet so firmly planted in the divine and the mundane.”

“Mundane” makes the grounded aspects sound banal, but Down to Earth does a fantastic job conveying the importance and effort around maintaining Diana’s public relations. Her book is, expectedly, controversial with conservative media pundits afraid of Wonder Woman’s “progressive influence”. Scenes focusing upon the Embassy staff are very reminiscent of The West Wing, both in the frank political manoeuvring they employ, but also how peppy and bouncy the banter between them is. Down to Earth takes the grounded events of Diana’s book tour or PR smear-campaigns, and makes them fun and engaging to read.

Alongside her Embassy staff, Rucka’s characterisation of Wonder Woman herself is excellent. She emits a genuine aura, being respectful and empathetic to everyone around her. It’s even commented how she compels the truth, not from her magic lasso, but by her very nature. Diana likes helping and interacting with others, and only fights them as a last resort. Yet she is not purely some reverential and unattainably perfect figure. She also jokes around with her staff, talks about being unable to eat, and gets annoyed at being shepherded around in limousines (finding them both “ostentatious” and a “mockery of fuel efficiency”). Wonder Woman is a delight in Down to Earth, yes, but she also seems like a real person, and this well-rounded perspective only makes her more endearing.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.
Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.

This is also conveyed by Drew Johnson’s artwork. Now, Johnson’s artwork isn’t the most measured or the most consistent. Individual panels can sometimes stick out sorely. However, he brings an elasticity that helps with the layout’s flow and takes the character’s off the page. Down to Earth doesn’t have many action scenes, but the artwork helps the dialogue to come alive, alongside neat environmental designs. I personally adore the way Johnson draws Wonder Woman. She’s obviously still gorgeous, with a small joke being how her Publisher wants a more provocative cover for Reflections. Johnson doesn’t objectify Diana, drawing her as broad-shouldered and imposing. Yet, combined with her radiant charm and constant smiles, Diana comes across as an extremely capable and warm figure.

Of course, not everybody sees her this way. Down to Earth introduces Veronica Cale, most easily described as a “Lex Luthor for Diana.” Rucka still writes Veronica with complexity, especially in her genuine intolerance for Dr Pyscho, another foe of Wonder Woman’s. Nevertheless, Veronica uses Diana’s book as an opening for a calculated attack, fuelling the conservative groups who claim Diana is imposing her “pagan” and “deviant” ways upon their children. As her staff explain, Diana is a humanist and paragon of truth, so she chooses her words carefully. Having them twisted out of context is as much a blow to Wonder Woman as any physical threat.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.
Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.

People often talk about a superhero’s “symbolic potential.” How Superman can represent virtues like Hope and the American Way, inspiring others to do what’s right. However, often this is left vague. What is “hope”, ”right, or “American” means different things to different people. They’re symbolic words which shift depending upon the subject. So, by actually writing down her concrete ideals and beliefs in Reflections, Wonder Woman stops being a catch-all symbol. Through expressing her active goals in Man’s World, Diana suddenly becomes tangible, dragged out of vague symbolic reverence and back down to earth.

This is what conservative groups latch onto. Diana is no longer an inspirational figurehead without interference, but an actively political one. They claim that by simply expressing her opinions, Diana is mandating it be taken up, instead of an entry for discussion. Perhaps counterintuitively, Rucka is more interested in this reaction – the dissection of Wonder Woman – than her actual politics, which are referenced but not the main subject. They break up a Wonder Woman fan club meeting, claiming it to be a cult. Again, Rucka demonstrates this is not about blind reverence, as the club was organising fund-raising and literacy campaigns. Down to Earth is less interested in some detached iconic image of Wonder Woman, and more how her actionable agenda influences the world around her.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.
Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.

Down to Earth does have a lot of talking. It’s certainly a decompressed and deliberately paced book, and perhaps not everyone is as interested in a superhero book tour as me. Yet Rucka keeps all the dialogue sharp, making the downtime with Wonder Woman feel as essential as the shadowy plans and fight sequences. There are fantastic light-hearted and mythic takes on Wonder Woman, but Rucka’s work is mature in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the character’s appeal. Plus, Down to Earth does carefully build into an explosive crescendo, while Diana’s book inspires plots by both Ares and Veronica that will reverberate throughout the rest of Rucka’s run.

Wonder Woman is often symbolic, and so is constantly being reinvented to explore her mythological roots and significance. Rucka himself would do this during DC Rebirth. In Down to Earth, Rucka showed a Wonder Woman who was fully-formed, and the ways she brought her Themysciran mission and graceful nature into the modern and realistic world of mankind.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.
Wonder Woman: Down to Earth art by Drew Johnson.

Wonder Woman: Down to Earth is told in Wonder Woman (1987 series) #195-200 and is collected in Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka Volume 1. You can find it at all good comic book stores, book shops, eBay and digitally on Comixology.

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