When dealing with any long running comic book franchise, one tends to remember only the highlights - particularly the attempts to shake-up the status quo in order to reverse creative malaise and flagging sales. DC's marquee female super-hero Wonder Woman, seems especially prone to this re-jiggering. Her mixed attribures and fantastic origins tend to inspire conflicting interpretations. She's perhaps even more of a cypher than her male counterparts Superman and Batman. Is she a diplomat, warrior, princess, an innocent abroad, dominatrix, or a feminist symbol? Possibly the oddest effort to redefine her came when writer Dennis O'Neil was given the chance to overhaul the character. What he and collaborating artists Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano did was ditch almost every familiar element and recreate her from the ground-up. Their attempt to modernize Wonder Woman failed commercially, and was eventually retconned out of existence. But DC has republished these issues in two paperbacks. Volume 1 contains issues #178-184, which mainly deal with Diana Prince battling the arch-villain Doctor Cyber.
This period of Wonder Woman's published history is sometimes fondly referred to as the "I-Ching Era." O'Neil and company's basic idea was to remove her mythical powers and turn her into a late 60s definition of a modern woman - essentially a comic book version of Emma Peel. When her beau Steve Trevor is arrested on murder charges, Wonder Woman's testimony at his trial ironically leads to his conviction. Diana undergoes a fashion makeover in order to appear more trendy and discover the true murderer. She soon solves the case and clears Steve's name.
However, in the next issue, Steve goes undercover in order to infiltrate Doctor Cyber's criminal organization. Paradise Island is then moved to another dimension in order to recharge its store of magic. Diana chooses to stay on Earth in order to find Steve. Cut-off from her source of power, she quits her job at military intelligence, opens a boutique, and learns karate from I-Ching, a blind Chinese monk whose temple was destroyed by Doctor Cyber. Even without her Amazon abilities she becomes an accomplished fighter within a relatively short span of time.
None of her newly developed skills help save Steve's life when she finally finds him. With his death, Diana has lost the person who first motivated her to leave Paradise Island. She has no love life, no powers, and no double identity. She no longer uses her golden lasso or wears a costume, but dresses in an ever changing wardrobe of fashionable outfits. She drops out of the super-hero community altogether, choosing instead to work with I-Ching in her quest to bring down Dr. Cyber. The new Wonder Woman's world-spanning adventures in this paperback volume fall mostly into the high action/thriller mode of storytelling, but suddenly shift gears to temporarily return Diana back to her mythological roots towards the end of the story arc. It's a curious mix of genres that attempt to expand the limits of Diana's horizons and show the creative staff working hard to find a new direction for her.
Not surprisingly, some elements that may have seemed a novelty in 1968 appears rather dated today. The attempt to capture contemporary youth certainly feels quaint, especially the hippie counterculture, street lingo and the overall psychedelic color scheme. The mystique of Asian forms of fighting was on the rise at the time, and lends credulity to the many hand-to-hand combat scenes. Diana is able to dispatch any number of human and non-human opponents with relative ease. I-Ching is the stereotypical wise oriental dispensing stern discipline and cryptic statements in sometimes broken English.
Despite her proficiency, Diana is depicted as an emotionally fragile person, just like a woman. She tolerates all of Steve Trevor's insensitive remarks, even to the point of blaming herself for his shortcomings. After Steve's death, she develops the habit of falling for the wrong type of guy. There's a lot of weeping when they inevitably disappoint her - hardly the image of the strong, independent modern woman. It's not even the more confident and sexually charged figure from creator William Moulton Martson. Sekowsky's art is just as competent, and his faces just and wooden, as it was during his run at Justice League of America, except he gets to draw Diana Prince in chic clothes while performing faux martial arts poses, ready to execute a "karate chop." To be fair, his ambitious staging of action sequences shows the influence of the more dynamic Marvel Comics in-house style of the time.
In hindsight it's easy to see how this depowered Wonder Woman failed to capture the public imagination. This is as radical a re-imagining of the character as possible - One with the most tenuous connection to her past. But turning Diana into a martial arts sleuth that barely interacted with the rest of the DC Universe didn't sit well with established fans (Which included Gloria Steinem). Still it says something about the character's unpopularity that DC was willing to let Wonder Woman be re-tooled so extensively. And this is an audacious, and in in it's own right noteworthy, undertaking that's highly unlikely with today's continuity-obsessed market.