Daniel Warren Johnson is a really exciting name in comics right now. Concluding Murder Falcon, which was one of the best books of the year, he’s on a bit of a roll. Boasting an energetic style that is both loud and explosive, there’s something very metal and deeply fun about his work; the sense of movement he’s able to get across, the way he frames his characters, to be gentle and human, delivering these little moments of character, while also packing in high-octane and ridiculous moments that don’t feel out of place. The man wrote a book about the power of music in the face of world-ending negativity monsters, where in a cosmic falcon who loves heavy metal, punching evil and drinking beer is a lead character. That’s his vibe and it’s a vibe that’s evident in Wonder Woman: Dead Earth.
The concept? Effectively, Wonder Woman by way of Kamandi, through a modern Mad Max-filter. So less talking animal tribes and sole human and more, wild, terrible people inhabiting an incomprehensible dystopia. The DCU has gone to s--t. It is now nothing but the rotting corpse of what it once was. It’s all nuclear fall-out, fighting over resources and pain. And that’s where Diana awakens, having been asleep for ages, not recalling the how or why of any of this.
Look at that. Johnson is, of course, teamed up with colorist and frequent collaborator Mike Spicer and they make some lovely pages here. The sheer scope and scale the visual conveys, the use of blacks for shadows, the way depth is communicated and the colors with the browns and the oranges, all the while capturing this deeply powerful, human moment. That’s what this book does at its best.
As the cover indicates, the book does show Wonder Woman as a warrior, a sword-wielding hero, which is one facet of her, to be sure. But much more vitally, she’s a character about love. She’s someone who loves and loves deeply, even when it feels impossible to. And while Dead Earth sort of operates off and is built on the ‘Warrior Woman’ imagery and conceit that has become so ubiquitous and popular for the character, the way it works is almost as a subversion of that idea. Diana isn’t the cold ‘badass’. Diana’s love and caring are consistently emphasized and underlined by the work, ensuring that she’s not defined just be her capacity to kick ass. The work never loses sight of the central idea that Wonder Woman is about love. There’s a rather lovely scene where she tells someone she just met she loves them and not in a sensual or romantic way, but she loves this fellow human being, much like she loves all people. And the idea that she does feels impossible and horrific to this stranger, she yells that it’s not human, how can you love like that? And that’s just it. That’s Wonder Woman. She loves even when it’s hardest to.
Past that, the issue boasts some really kinetic action and letterwork by Rus Wooton, which make for a great combo. The above page is a great example, look how the letters consistently punctuate nearly every action or moment in a colorful way that pops. They’re done in numerous styles, from blocky to uneven and cartoony, some almost boast a paint-brush aesthetic. There’s almost a graffiti-sensibility to some of them, with the first SCREEE, feeling as though it was etched from a Japanese calligraphy brush. The letters do much storytelling here in a way that defies the commonly held idea of ‘invisible’ lettering, which is great to see, because lettering is always at its best when it’s not invisible, when it’s actively part of the story in a way you notice it just like you would any piece of art or dialogue.
The monsters seen above are, of course, the mysterious creatures that haunt this nuclear wasteland of a world. And while Diana seems like a character who’s peaceful to and with all life, which may raise some eyebrows for some people who like the peaceful aspects of the character. But it works in the way it contextualized. Johnson is no stranger to wild monsters like these, having done them to great effect in Murder Falcon. And there, the monsters weren’t just monsters, they were personifications of negative, terrible impulses. They weren’t literal life, but the idea of something given form, to be fought and faced, as comics like to do that. And here, too, the monsters serve a similar purpose. They’re much more the idea of the horror of this nuclear, impossible, unknowable world than a sentient being that can be reasoned with. And what is horror, if not the opposite of wonder? So it makes sense. A natural conclusion.
All in all, Wonder Woman: Dead Earth #1 is a really strong start to this new elseworlds take on Diana. And it’s one of the better Black Label entries so far, bring DWJ to DC in a stellar debut. Some will obviously draw parallels to the recent dystopic BL title, Last Knight and while that’s certainly fair, this feels like a much more specific, clear, singular vision from the get-go and it stands alone and apart. It’s got Wonder Woman wearing the Bat-Utility Belt and facing some surprising old characters, all to showcase how much she loves us, even when we’ve made it so, so difficult, having destroyed so much. And that, is something that’s worth getting into.