Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Silver Swan

I'd read some of the classic Roy Thomas works like All-Star Squadron and Invaders and liked some of what I read but been completely unimpressed with other stuff like Infinity Inc. I took him as a decent writer, but not always up to my tastes.

This may be why I'm so taken with his short Wonder Woman run back in the early eighties. I was actually surprised when I read Wonder Woman #300 that he was the writing credit, not because of disrespect for his skill but because I hadn't realized that this would be the writer who wrote such a perfect story for me. It was possible there that it was more Dann Thomas, or even a fluke, until I read the other Thomas back issues I had. As a result the RetroActive special I'm most looking forward to is his 80s Wonder Woman.

I can't figure out which of these stories they'll go with for the reprint backup, though. It was a short run dominated by multi-part stories, and the only standalone was the extra-sized issue 300. Still, they could do worse than reprinting issue #290, which ended the three-part story that introduced Silver Swan.

Silver Swan is one of those villains we see pop up from time to time Post-Crisis, who has the powers to throw down with Wonder Woman but doesn't ever seem to join villains like Cheetah, Ares, and Circe in the regular Rogue's Gallery. I think that's because when Perez introduced her, Valerie Beaudry was a sad young woman who had experienced a tragedy and was manipulated by a man. The guy she was with was the real threat, she was sympathetic. So you felt kind of bad to see Diana punch her, and wanted the whole thing resolved with her reformed.

This is a good story for a one-off bad guy, or an origin for a hero (see Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch), but not something for a regular member of the Rogue's Gallery. Valerie did reform and help Diana later, but she never caught on as a hero. The poor woman was mercifully retired.

I liked Jimenez's idea to bring in a new Silver Swan that Diana could fight, and making it Vanessa Kapetalis allowed for some intriguing angst. He could have executed this better, because the way he did it made for yet another young woman manipulated by a man story. Vanessa's trauma was even more emphasized than Valerie's, with several scenes establishing she was violently kidnapped, brainwashed and unhinged by the experience. The man who made her the Swan was the real villain, Vanessa was an innocent victim thrown at Diana. And while Vanessa's ranting, misplaced violence, and general dislikability made it easier on us when Diana had to beat her up, it still put Wonder Woman in the unsuitable bully category. Vanessa was not a villainess, she was someone Diana had to save and protect.

So I and probably most other Post-Crisis readers categorized the Silver Swan as a sympathetic victim of male manipulation, a name for Diana's Rogue's Gallery but not an identity that could really stay with a single person. Her strength, flight, and sonic scream made her a great punch-em-up bad guy, but her backstory made it hard to watch the fight. The common themes tended to be that she was "ugly duckling" who was suckered into scientific testing and remade as a terrifyingly beautiful force for evil.

This was not how Silver Swan was Pre-Crisis. Pre-Crisis, Helen Alexandros was still an "ugly duckling" given a beautiful, powerful superhero identity. She had flight, super-strength, and a sonic scream.

That's where the similarities stopped. Because Helen Alexandros was a bad guy of her own volition.

She was a young woman with acne who pursued a career as a ballerina. I feel for her in this early part of the story because dammit, she worked her ass off and if things were done on pure dancing skill alone she would have danced the lead in Swan Lake. But things are not done on pure skill alone, and she overheard that she was passed over for prima ballerina in favor of a prettier girl.

In grief and rage, she calls out to the gods in a scene straight out of Greek Mythology (and drawn by the amazing Gene Colan) that her looks are unjust, that the world is run by men, and that she HATES men!

And the gods, or rather, one god answers her.

Guess which one.

Ares tells her that she's his descendant, and also a descendant of Helen of Troy. He begins to summarize the plot of the Illiad and Helen Alexandros interrupts with how much she likes "the part about bring death and destruction to men!"

He offers her great power and beauty, provided she use those gifts to cause wars among men. She gets them for an hour at a time, until she manages to kill Wonder Woman. Killing Wonder Woman will make her permanently the Silver Swan. Helen readily agrees and pledges her fealty to the God of War.

This is not an innocent, manipulated victim. This is a woman embittered by society who has chosen to strike at society as a criminal. This is a villain with the seed of sympathy who nonetheless possesses the wickedness necessary to fully deserve being punched repeatedly in the face by Wonder Woman. This is a perfect origin for a regular member of Wonder Woman's Rogue's Gallery. Not only that, she has a mythological tie.

I cannot for the life of me understand why they didn't just use this woman when re-introducing the Silver Swan. I don't know why they didn't just make her the second one. I don't know why they don't just bring her in as the Swan right now. Because we have a villain who is a physical match, and a thematic foil for Wonder Woman just sitting on the shelf while every writer says "I want to add to her Rogue's Gallery, she doesn't have enough good villains."

But I digress.

Anyway, the Silver Swan isn't the only great villain in this storyline. In Wonder Woman 288 we establish Helen, her history, her motive, and the fact that she's figured out Wonder Woman's secret identity and managed to make herself Etta and Diana's roommate. Then we go to check in on Steve Trevor.

Poor Steve is in the hospital after a head injury because he is clumsier than the love child of Hal Jordan and Bella Swan spies/terrorists/something or other attacked them. It should have been superficial, but for Mysterious Reasons he's lapsed into a coma and is hanging onto his life by a thread. Despite this condition, the doctor signs him over to Dr. Psycho, because he seems like a nice man who has authorization from the Pentagon. (He does not have authorization from the Pentagon.)

And that's just the first issue in this storyline. Really, I wanted to get through the whole thing because one of them is cover-dated for my birth month and today is that kind of day, but I've squandered all of my time explaining why I will never be able to accept another Silver Swan. I'll get to Dr. Psycho, Steve, Captain Wonder, and the wonderful way these two plots weave together later.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I aten't dead.

This week has been pretty exhausting. I'll get back to blogging eventually, and maybe someday answer my comments but right now I'm just too pooped to do anything but argue on twitter and muck around on tumblr. I'm really just dropping this note to try and get my brain back into the updating this blog mindset.