Waiting for the End of the World in Daniel Warren Johnson's Wonder Woman: Dead Earth

The legacy that Diana has to live up to (art by Daniel Warren Johnson and Mike Spicer)

Daniel Warren Johnson gives us a very different depiction of Wonder Woman than we’ve seen before. The Gal Gadot model of the character has been the default for a while now, even well before we thought we would get a couple of Wonder Woman movies; long, slender, quite beautiful in a classic way with barely a hair out of place. Johnson’s is the exact opposite of that. She’s built like a person and not an ideal. She’s battered and bruised. She’s more of a fighter and a brawler than some kind of statuesque Greek warrior. For one of the few times in recent memory, Wonder Woman looks like a real woman and not a super-human god.

In Wonder Woman: Dead Earth, Johnson doesn’t draw this like a superhero comic. This is a story of a character barely holding onto her wits. Johnson’s Diana doesn’t have the time or the energy to pose in a heroic shot. The only time we get an idea of the person she was is when we first see her coming to the rescue of some people being hunted by monsters. In that single moment, we get to see the powerful woman that’s been in many other comics. We see Wonder Woman, regal and strong. But that is fleeting as that takes all of her energy. After that, we see Diana, a fighter who is struggling to hold everything together. Johnson builds her back up from there, showing a character who has a different type of strength. It’s a strength that doesn’t come from muscle but her spirit.

Feel the power in DWJ and Mike Spicer's art and Rus Wooten's lettering

Johnson’s writing follows suit. Found in a metal container after who knows how many years of being there, Diana wakes to find a ravaged earth, destroyed by a callus and careless humanity. In a lot of ways, this is Diana as in Mad Max’s world, trying to figure out her place and role in a post-apocalyptic world.

In too many ways, that makes Wonder Woman: Dead Earth sound like any the-world-is-destroyed-in-the-future story, from Mad Max to The Planet of the Apes. But this is one of the best Wonder Woman stories because Diana doesn’t act like a hero, a god, or even an ideal here. Johnson strips away the legend of Wonder Woman, taking her completely out of any recognizable world for her. It’s a stranger-in-a-strange-world story but when done right as it is here, it gives you a whole new insight into these old characters.

Let’s take a quick look at the film Wonder Woman: 84 where Diana goes through some of the same struggles. There’s a similar waywardness that Patty Jenkins and Johnson’s Dianas find themselves in. Both versions of the character are lost in their missions of peace, adrift as the world around them changes faster than they can keep up with. In the movie, she eventually regains her sense of purpose and direction.

Johnson sets Diana on her quest to save the rag-tagged remnants of humanity by taking them to the magical paradise island that she grew up on to find some way to save the world. But quickly we see that’s not the focus of this book. Restoration for the world and the character is just too big and too unattainable of a goal for Diana. And as her memory and knowledge of the past are filled in, as she begins to understand her role in everything that happened, restoration of what she’s lost just isn’t what the character even deserves. A quest to save everyone becomes a journey for a woman to find peace and understanding in what she has done and caused.

A Different Type of Dark Knight 

A surface reading of this book could be “Daniel Warren Johnson’s Dark Knight Returns take on Wonder Woman” and there’s a certain amount of truth to that. But it’s so much more. Johnson’s art contains so much pent up energy and rage. As Diana assumes responsibility for the last remnants of humanity and the legacy of the Amazons, she’s shown as a woman whose concerns are outside of herself. She wants to save everyone but when she realizes she can’t, Johnson’s pages just overflow with a wave of slow-burning, sorrowful anger that is looking for a target to lash out at. 

Diana is neither a god and nor a superhero here. She is just a fighter but she’s also a failure. She failed to prevent the end of the world and now she has to try to save the last embers of it. Diana couldn’t live up to the legend of Wonder Woman. So instead of redeeming her, Johnson tries to explore what she can be and even what she should be when she can’t be a superhero. If some fairy-tale concept of peace ends up being unattainable, where does that leave Diana?

The messiness in Johnson’s artwork makes this a very alive world despite the name of the book. His Diana carries the weight of every life that she’s failed to save, including those of her family and closest friends. She bears that responsibility but Johnson captures her reluctance to carry that weight. So when she releases her strength in battle, Johnson draws this as an explosion of energy. When she’s lost and uncertain, he captures a quiet reserve and maybe even fear. Her power and strength are still there just below the surface but her confusion and loss are greater and overshadow the legend of Wonder Woman. Those quiet moments speak to what this character could be. She’s not a goddess; she’s something both more and less than that. It’s exciting to see Daniel Warren Johnson wrestle with Diana’s struggles in Wonder Woman: Dead Earth.

Wonder Woman: Dead Earth
Written and Drawn by Daniel Warren Johnson
Colored by Mike Spicer
Lettered by Rus Wooten
Published by DC Comics