Series—whether book, movie, or TV—rarely have the same quality throughout. Some decrease in quality because the author has a different vision than the audience concerning what is intriguing about the character and setting (Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter), because the author gets tangled in their backstory and plans and doesn’t quite make it all come together (Divergent, His Dark Materials), or because of a change in the creative team (The West Wing). Sometimes a series increases in quality as the writer or story comes into its own (The Dresden Files). And sometimes a series completely falls apart because poor publishing decisions make the books completely unreadable.
This has been the case with the trade paperback volumes 1-4 of Greg Rucka’s run on Wonder Woman: Rebirth. This book involves a fully fleshed out female character who is a superhero without being written like a man with boobs. She is dealing with a version of gaslighting writ large that is causing her to doubt the very essence of her being. She is overwhelmed by and eventually moves through her terror, loss, and anger to face her abuser head on, eventually saving herself and her people.
I’m not overselling this here; the main driver of the early plot is that a character who once held the mantle as the literal Goddess of Truth is quite literally doubting her own sanity after her history and experiences are called into question.
This is a multifaceted, character-oriented superhero story, evidenced not just by the writing but by the art. Each artist shows a strength I look for and adore in my favorite works—the ability to create expressive faces, guiding the mood of the story, and never relying on the text to carry you through. The first two volumes of this series moved me to tears on multiple occasions.
In volumes 3 and 4, I believe that the same tight narrative style and incredibly gorgeous art would have created a story that I’d be recommending to everyone I know… if I’d been able to read it without flipping back and forth between three different volumes to try and understand what I was reading.
The Sense Behind Reading Comics in Trade Formats
I very rarely buy books in single issues: space, economics, and experiences with comic book stores that have left me cold mean that when I do buy single issues, I buy them digitally. More often than not, however, I buy trade paperbacks. I like to read several issues of a book at once, and the physical feel of a trade comic better accommodates some of my sensory issues.
Since I’d heard such amazing things about Rucka as a comics writer, this seemed like a great way to find out what he was about (I hadn’t even realized he did a previous run on Wonder Woman). I didn’t get clued in to how the run would be collected in trade until after I’d purchased the first volume; after that, even knowing the weirdness of DC’s choice, it made sense to keep buying the trade paperbacks.
This choice nearly ruined my reading experience of one of the best comics I think I’ve ever read. It turns out that there are two ways to read this exceptional comic: in single issues (either paper or digital) or by waiting for the Deluxe Editions. Don’t be like me and buy the paperback trades; you’ll regret the experience and the expenditure.
What’s Going on With Wonder Woman’s Rebirth Trades?
Let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Some of DC’s most popular titles come out twice a month. In order to create visual consistency, Rucka’s Wonder Woman alternates artists between issues and has two interwoven plots: one for odd numbered issues, one for even numbered issues. In its original, single issue form, this created an incredible, critically acclaimed story. But when it came time to put it in trade, DC decided to fix what wasn’t broken. In doing so, they broke it badly.
Check this out: I give you the Wonder Woman trades and their contents:
- Volume 1: The Lies (Wonder Woman: Rebirth Special, Issues #1, #3, #5, #7, #9, #11)
- Writer: Greg Rucka
- Pencils and Inks: Liam Sharp
- Colorists: Laura Martin and Jeremy Colwell
- Volume 2: Year One (#2, #4, #6, #8, #10, #12, #14)
- Writer: Greg Rucka
- Pencils and Inks: Nicola Scott (with Bilquis Evely for Issue #8, ‘Interlude’)
- Colorist: Romulo Fajardo Jr.
- Volume 3: The Truth (#13, #15, #17, #19, #21, #23, #25)
- Writer: Greg Rucka
- Pencils and Inks: Liam Sharp (with Renato Guedes on Issue #13, “Angel Down,” and Bilquis Evely providing additional art on Issue #25, “Perfect”)
- Colorists: Laura Martin and Romulo Fajardo Jr.
- Volume 4: Godwatch (#16, #18, #20, #22, #24, Annual)
- Writer: Greg Rucka
- Artist: Bilquis Evely gets cover credit, but Mirka Andolfo, Nicola Scott, Scott Hanna, Mark Morales, Andrew Hennessy and Raul Fernandez all get interior credit
- Colorist: Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Notice those content lists? I didn’t, and I should have. I should have been concerned; baffled; confused; annoyed; mad—the five stages of dealing with comics’ nonsense.
Why Does Trade Organization Matter?
It’s always frustrating when a company decides to collect a book differently than how it was originally published. When trades incorporate tie-in books or annuals that aren’t technically part of the specific title’s numbered narrative but deepen the reading experience in some fashion (or create some context for those pesky tie-ins), the choice makes sense. When there’s a major change like this, however, which presents the narrative in a different fashion than originally intended, I object as a creator and consumer.
Frankly, when I was picking up DC titles at a Buy 2 Get 1 Free sale, it never occurred to me to check if Wonder Woman: Rebirth contained anything other than (roughly) issues 1-6 of the book. I am primarily familiar with Wonder Woman through the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons: the rest of my experience with Diana, Princess of the Amazons was through cultural osmosis.
I do vaguely remember the Lynda Carter show from when I was a kid, but the Wonder Woman movie hadn’t even come out when I bought this book. Reading the first trade, I was stunned by the in-depth, adult-focused storyline of a woman trying to understand the truth of who she really was, which history (and, God help me, which continuity) was hers. I dove into Volume 1 wholeheartedly, and I absolutely loved what I was reading.
Volume 2 (which I bought as soon as it was available) serves as exactly what it says on the cover: an updated origin story for those who are new to the DC comics world, covering Diana’s first year as Wonder Woman. I was actually reading Year One at the same time that I was diving into George Perez’s run on Wonder Woman from 1986; the way Rucka and Scott both paid tribute to and created their own unique version of what Perez had done thirty years prior was amazing. If I wasn’t in love with Wonder Woman after the first trade, reading this arc (drawn by Nicola Scott, one of the best artists currently working in comics) had me sold.
So Where Does Wonder Woman: Rebirth Go Wrong?
And then Volume 3 happened. The story started to become very disjointed. Throughout Volume 1, Diana was overwhelmed by the various histories that she had experienced and eventually discovered that much of what she thought had happened in her past was false.
Volume 3 opens with Diana’s mind fundamentally broken by this experience, and her calling out to her gods to understand what has happened to her. (As a brief trigger warning regarding mental health issues, this trade opens with Diana institutionalized as she is lost within her own mind.)
The beginning of the volume was heartbreaking, but as the story went on and Diana regained her sense of self, I lost track of what was happening. Themyscira was being invaded? Diana was being manipulated, or maybe attacked? There was a faceless girl? And an angry and blonde lady? Ares and his sons were causing trouble? I wasn’t sure why, but let’s face it: Ares, God of War, is frequently an adversary of Diana’s, so I was willing to run with the narrative, as confusing as I found it.
I managed to put together the general overview of the story. A woman I’d never heard of was trying to kill Diana because of her daughter who has no face, and Ares was causing trouble because of things I was sure they’d explain, and then they did, but only kind of. I was never entirely sure what was going on, but overall the story had been moving and beautifully drawn, so I was willing to let that go.
The story in Volume 3 was complete, if confusing. I’d even read the epilogue; I heard later that issue #25, “Perfect,” was, in fact, Rucka’s last issue on the run. This story is a moment of soft sweetness in a tale that has been marked by internal and external violence, and it closes on the relationship between Steve Trevor and Diana. It feels like an incredible, peaceful, quiet resting place for Rucka to lay his story down like the precious and loved thing that it is, giving it a quiet kiss before he moved on.
The story felt completely finished and thoroughly wrapped up, but Rucka’s run was not actually finished; I knew the even issues were still on their way in Volume 4, but how could there be any story left to tell?
When Volume 4: Godwatch showed up on my doorstep in November, I understood why everything had gone so sideways, and Volume 3 had been so confusing. Volume 4 was theoretically a self-contained story, except that its narrative was the necessary context to understand what was happening in Volume 3. I learned who the blonde lady was, why she was so angry about Diana specifically, why her kid didn’t have a face, and why Ares was causing trouble this particular time. I felt less like I hadn’t grasped the central point of the story and a lot more like DC had screwed up my ability to read this beautiful piece. It’s amazing how much clearer a narrative becomes when you have the characters’ motives.
Two issues into Volume 4, it became clear that I was reading one half of a tightly woven narrative, and the half that gave me all of the context I’d been missing in Volume 3. I quit reading halfway through the book in disgust.
When I was a kid, I read The Lord of the Rings. I found Merry and Pippin’s story incredibly boring, so as soon as they got hooked back up with Gandalf in The Two Towers, I skipped to the Sam and Frodo parts of the book. I didn’t even bother with the first half of Return of the King. I had no idea who Eowyn was, why all these people were at the gates of Mordor, or how any of the last quarter of Return of the King came to be.
The first time I experienced the entire story as a unified whole was the Peter Jackson adaptations. Friends of mine who are Tolkien fans have expressed their moral outrage at my behavior for decades, but at least when I was a kid, my total lack of understanding was my own fault.
This time, it is not my fault, and DC is to blame.
It’s one thing to separate out Volumes 1 and 2, where the story does take place in two separate times and places. In retrospect, the tragedy of Barbara Ann is much more poignant and beautiful if you are seeing who she was and who she became as a constant set of reflecting mirrors, especially when paired with Diana’s own journey. But Volumes 1 and 2 are at least readable separately, and I marked the quality by how many times I cried reading each book (which to my recollection was 4 and 6 respectively).
But Volumes 3 and 4 aren’t separate stories; they are two halves of the same story, and it was a mistake for DC to publish and present them as anything else. (In the interest of fairness, there is tiny print on the back of the Volumes 3 and 4 which, if you read squint, notes that the trades collect odd and even issues respectively.) To read the story in publication order, you would need to read an issue out of Volume 3, then the last issue from Volume 2, another out of Volume 3, and then alternate with an issue out of Volume 4 and Volume 3 until you got to the series wrap in Volume 3.
The last time I had to spend this much work to read something, I was comparing biblical translations for a Religion, Literature, and Philosophy seminar in college. Without a professor breathing down my neck and a grade required for my major (or intentionally choosing to examine two books side by side for a review or article), I absolutely refuse to read this way. This is supposed to be my leisure time, not a homework assignment.
So Is Wonder Woman: Rebirth Unreadable in Collections?
There is hope in the midst of this stupidity. The one thing DC has done right, belated though it may be, is publish Deluxe Editions of the comic. Each Deluxe Edition combines two of the trade volumes in an oversized format and—thank the powers that be—presents the comic in its initial, intended, comprehensible reading order.
Unfortunately, Wonder Woman: Rebirth Deluxe Edition Book 2 doesn’t come out until July 2018: that’s eight months after Volume 4 hit the shelves in trade, and over a year since the final issue of Rucka’s run was released. That’s an incredibly long time to wait to read a title I love just because DC doesn’t know how to publish things, but it is a lovely way to keep me out of current comics culture. If Diana is doing something in another title, I certainly don’t know about it, because I will be over a year behind by the time I pick up the second Deluxe Edition. Of course, James Robinson’s run seems to be universally panned, so it’s unlikely I’ll be keeping up with Diana from here until there’s a new creative team anyway. DC Comics: forever offering a cherry on top of the cow patty sundae.
While all of this offends me as a writer, I’m downright ornery as a consumer about needing to buy the books twice. There’s an argument to be made that I should have known better, but it’s a weak one. The onus is on DC to make their work accessible to those of us who just want to pick up something to read, and I can absolutely own that this makes me particularly angry when it’s being screwed up with the company’s most recognizable female character. Yes, the Deluxe Edition is better and fixes the problems with the individual volume releases, but this whole enterprise is amazingly stupid.
It’s like waiting a year between each third of Rashomon and being told it’s okay, I’ll get a DVD in a couple months. I’ve watched Star Trek: TNG‘s first two seasons on purpose (more than once!), I am willing to walk through a downpour in order to get to the good stuff, but don’t tell me I’m walking through golden rain when I’m really trying to run through a golden shower.
There is also plenty of evidence that modern movie fans backtrack to comics when they love the movie. With its phenomenal sales numbers and reach into new audiences, the Wonder Woman movie could drive huge numbers of fans into the arms of comics, but many people who are not current comics fans are unlikely to venture into the hallowed walls of the local comic store. I could sell a number of friends on the wonder of Wonder Woman—just like I did on Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, X-23, Batwoman—but asking them to buy a $35 hardcover without knowing if they’ll enjoy the story is a bit more dramatic than recommending a $17 paperback.
Not feeling like I can easily recommend Wonder Woman is a particular shame, given that the content in this book is pure gold. I’ve complained about DC’s collections and praised Rucka’s writing, but I could (and do!) go full on Wayne and Garth “We’re Not Worthy” for the art. I’m an absolute fangirl for Nicola Scott, and her work on Year One is what made me one. She has referred to working on Wonder Woman as her “all-time dream job,” and her enthusiasm shows through with some of the best work I’ve seen in comics, full stop.
Liam Sharp on Volumes 1 and 3 balances gorgeous, sweeping scenes with tight, focused work on faces that carried me through this unfamiliar journey with a character I’ve grown to love. Bilquis Evely has a looser sort of style that I enjoyed, but think I would have liked a lot more if the story I was reading hadn’t been completely incomprehensible. I suppose I’ll find out in six months.
Because DC is nothing if not persistent—when it has a bad idea, it commits—it’s worth noting at least one more comic where you need the Deluxe Editions, not the paperback trades. Harley Quinn, a wonderful comic by the creative team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner (and so many more artists and writers), won’t be collected properly until the Deluxe Editions come out. The backup features co-written by comics legend and Harley co-creator Paul Dini, set in Harley’s past, are relegated to a later trade rather than presented as they were originally published. That’s a real shame, as I would have liked to have read those sooner rather than later.
This exasperating nonsense has made me wary of buying newer DC comics as a whole, at least without doing more research on the titles I’m interested in. The overall effect is that I’m less likely to read titles that aren’t A-list to begin with. The smaller titles will slip under my radar, so I’m less likely to buy them, so I’m less likely to recommend them, and there’s a 50/50 chance the editor will blame me for the cancellation of books I’ve never heard of. I doubt I’m the only one in that position, but I’m the one talking about it.
The original trades won’t go to waste; I’ll leave them in my Little Free Library down the street. There’s someone in my neighborhood who loves comics as much as I do, because any trade I leave there is gone within twelve hours.
But for the first time, I’ll be leaving a note along with them.
Dear Comics Friend!
I hope you love Diana as much as I do in these books. A word to the wise, however; you’ll need to switch between Volumes 1 and 2 (then 3 and 4) to read the story the way it was intended. Check the interiors for the exact issue numbers before you get started. Sorry for the homework assignment, but at least you have a cheat sheet!
Good luck and enjoy. And hey, if this is too annoying for you, you can join me in waiting for the Deluxe Editions.
My first real experience reading Greg Rucka’s work was incredibly rewarding, and I’m diving as far into his bibliography as I can. Black Magick, his previous Wonder Woman run, Batwoman, and Checkmate are all on my immediate TBR. It’s a shame that DC took an incredible story and hamstrung it for those of us who avoid our LCS like the plague.
Let’s not kid ourselves, comics are hard to break in to, and I don’t mean creatively. If you want to read X-Men, for example, you better be prepared to do your research and read more than one title a month. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It shouldn’t be like that. This is a fixable problem, and one that currently makes it hard to read something beautiful. I’m waiting for the Deluxe Edition. I hope you love this story as much as I do.