As an immortal embodiment of the indomitable feminine spirit, Wonder Woman’s character lends herself to the exploration of big ideas. Fortunately writer Steve Orlando really likes to play with big ideas. A few months ago, in Wonder Woman #750, he laid out Diana’s values:
1. No one is beyond redemption.
2. Always question power.
3. Seeking the truth is an act of rebellion.
Since then, he has been riffing on them while building to this issue’s story.
It opens with Diana’s sister Donna Troy (formerly Wonder Girl) saving a little girl from a burning building as she herself remembers being saved by Wonder Woman. The problem: it never happened. Diana had lied to Donna about her past to protect her. In truth, Donna had been created by magic to serve as a weapon against Wonder Woman.
After Donna gets the girl to safety, supervillains Devastation and Armageddon arrive to offer her membership in their club, The Four Horsewomen. (With Warmaster and Genocide, they already have four members, but hey they’re supervillains, not mathematicians.) Membership requirements include harboring a grudge against Wonder Woman and a name that suggests the end of civilization. Having recently turned evil and called herself Deathbringer, Donna apparently meets the criteria.
Meanwhile, in a less dramatic part of town, Diana shares Amazon wisdom with a class of schoolchildren, explaining that Amazons learn from history in order to create a better future. She goes on to invoke her grandmother Aclippe, whom she respects for challenging tradition and power by defying the gods and leaving Themyscira. Orlando has been highlighting Diana’s revolutionary spirit throughout his run. Here he seems to be contextualizing the story to come.
Police Detective Nunez, Diana’s friend, neighbor, and shadow, cuts Diana off. She’s not down with the idea of youngsters learning to “challenge power.” Defending her position, Diana asserts that the kids can handle it. She offers to continue the discussion at home, where she reveals that other reasons she’s been pondering her ideals.
Donna isn’t the only person Diana has given a falsified past. She has also been less than honest with Helen Paul, another child she rescued. Helen’s parents had been members of a terrorist group and died during a fight against Wonder Woman. To spare her that painful legacy, Diana chose to withhold the truth from Helen about who her parents were.
You might see the pattern here. You can only learn from the past if you know what it is.
Suggesting that Diana did the right thing by hiding the truth, Nunez asks, “You wait to tell kids about Santa, right?” And immediately wishes she hadn’t.
Diana concedes the point, musing that even adults never learn the truth about the wizard Ni’Klaus of Myra. (I need a Wonder Woman Christmas Special from Steve Orlando.)
At that moment, Diana catches what she had thought was a mosquito, but turns out to be a tiny mechanical Pegasus that teleports her instantly to Norway, where she finds her self face-to-face with Helen Paul! Helen has changed since the last time Diana saw her, now clad in black leather and wielding a menacing-looking spear. She monologues about how she is no longer Diana’s pawn and has learned the truth about her past, as well as her true name–Paula von Gunther!!!
Background: Paula von Gunther is one of Wonder Woman’s oldest villains, going all the way back to Sensation Comics #3 in 1942. Originally she was a Nazi spy, a cunning adversary who it turned out only served the Nazis because they held her daughter Gerta captive. After Wonder Woman rescued Gerta, Paula pledged herself to Aphrodite’s service, becoming the Amazons’ greatest scientist and one of Diana’s closest allies. In light of Orlando’s obvious knowledge of Marstonian themes, this suggests we’re reading a story of loss and redemption.
Back in Boston, Devastation and Armageddon continue pitching their job offer to Donna, explaining how Devastation was also created to kill Diana. Devastation surmises that killing Diana will bring “closure” so that they can finally stand for themselves. (Mental note: supervillains should not be allowed to read pop psychology books.)
Armageddon (who’s appears to be vibrating for some reason) says that Wonder Woman had hidden the truth out of fear of Donna, “fear that infects our lives, and unless we fight to be free of it… it makes us monsters.” Then she transforms into a monster… er, a different monster. Darker. Bigger? Maybe it’s just the black background for emphasis. The visual storytelling lacks clarity.
I interpret this scene to mean that the villains all believe Diana’s fear of them compels her to suppress them. If they just do away with Diana, they can be free to fully express their evil whims.
Donna doesn’t go for it, and realizes two things.
1. Diana would want to try a diplomatic solution.
2. She’s not Diana.
So she decides to punch them instead.
Across the world in Paula’s secret Norwegian headquarters, Diana refuses to apologize for doing what she thought was best–rescuing Paula from her birth parents, placing her in a loving home, and giving her a hopeful future. She even calls Paula “sister,” and for a moment Paula seems to hear her, but quickly returns to dark and sinister mode. “They said you wouldn’t admit it!”
Who are “they”?! Presumably the spirits of the Valkyries trapped in the Spear of Gudra that Paula has been holding the whole time. Paula tells Diana that when she first touched the spear she felt the death of every fallen Valkyrie—her ancestors. Paula von Gunther is the last descendent of Gudra, a Valkyrie defeated by the Amazons centuries ago. Experiencing their deaths as if she had lived them ignited in Paula an ancient blood feud between the Amazons and the Valkyries.
Diana seems to know this part of Paula’s family story, as well, and has kept it from her. She explains that the Valkyries attempted to conquer Themyscira and the Amazons acted in self-defense. The ongoing conflict, she says, stems from the Valkyries’ wounded ego. In response, Paula hurls her spear, which gives her the combined strength and hatred of all her ancestors, through Diana’s shoulder, pinning her to the stone wall.
Wrapping herself in the magic lasso, Diana swears to Paula that the Amazons did not strike first against the Valkyries. She apologizes for hiding the truth and for the pain the Amazons caused Paula’s family. Too little too late.
Paula asks Diana how she knows this. The spear’s power caused Paula to experience that battle as if she had been there thousands of years ago. Diana has only stories. According to Paula, the Valkyries were merely explorers who arrived at Themyscira by happenstance. The xenophobic Amazons attacked and decimated them unprovoked.
The lasso can only force Diana to speak what she believes to be the truth. She could be repeating a lie. After all, the Amazons have not always behaved honorably, having betrayed one another and fought civil wars. Paula notes that a strong enough lie can build entire civilizations (an idea Orlando explored in Wonder Woman #754, in which patriarchal rulers had covered up the existence of an ancient matriarchy.)
Diana concedes the Amazons’ fallibility. She believes the story, but she cannot know for sure that it is true. Remember, seeking the truth is an act of rebellion–and Wonder Woman is very much a rebel.
Segway to the cliffhanger. The Horsewomen will kill everyone in Boston unless Diana opens the portal to Themyscira so they can attack. She must choose between the humans and her Amazon sisters.
As I said, Orlando likes to play with big ideas.
How do we know what we know?
What is the source of the facts?
How does the selection of facts shape the narrative?
How does the story change based on the point of view?
In 2016, accepted anthropological truths about the role of women in various cultures have been turned on their head by DNA testing. Even confronted with scientific evidence that warrior skeletons once thought to be male are actually female, some academics, attempting to defend the disproved narrative, weave complicated explanations for why these women were buried with weapons.
Then there’s the lie of the gender binary. In my early 30s, an anthropology class taught me the word “intersex”. An astonishing 1.7% of humans are born with ambiguous genitalia, presenting as neither clearly male nor female. Not only that, but doctors have repeatedly performed gender assignment surgeries on infants without their parental consent, in order to force conformity to the illusion of a gender binary. This natural, statistically consistent phenomenon has been labeled a disorder, protecting the lie.
Naming the truth is an act of rebellion. As Wonder Woman, Diana must always face and include the truth, never shrink from it. Orlando’s story forces Diana to face some potentially ugly realities about her own history, just as we all must if we are brave enough.
No one likes to think of themselves or their forefathers as perpetrators. Most people are more comfortable as victims, absolving themselves of responsibility, perhaps gaining sympathy for their plight. After all, they had to do it and/or didn’t know any better–justifications used for everything from war to theft to slavery. We all have a choice, the same one Diana faces. We can either face the truth of our past, learn from it, and use the wisdom to create a better future. Or we can be like Paula, hold onto the past, relitigate it and let it define us, instead of working to improve current reality.