At first glance, Patty Jenkins’ upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t seem all that different from Wonder Woman’s comic book adventures in 1984. The movie hits theaters and HBO Max on Christmas Day, and if you took the Wayback Machine to a comic book shop in December 1984, you’d find Wonder Woman #323 on the shelves. Eduardo Barreto’s cover featured familiar faces like Wonder Woman and the Cheetah, while the story inside by Dan Mishkin and Don Heck had elements we’ve seen teased in trailers, including the invisible jet and even the return of Steve Trevor.
But the similarities are only surface level. The real issue is chaos. Wonder Woman was on the cusp of a complete reinvention — and it couldn’t come soon enough.
The 1980s were a tumultuous time for the Princess of the Amazons. A decade before, Ms. magazine made her a feminist icon, and then Lynda Carter made her a television star. But DC Comics had trouble keeping up.
The writers and editors seemed baffled by Wonder Woman’s newfound success, and never got a firm grasp on women’s lib or why the character was suddenly popular. They set the comics in the 1940s to match the TV show, and when the second season changed to a modern setting to save costs, the comic made an abrupt jump to the present, swapping around creative teams with new takes all the while. The end result was a mess of convoluted continuity and confusing characters that had grown downright baffling by 1984.
Like her cinematic counterpart, Etta Candy was a plucky military secretary in December, 1984’s Wonder Woman #323, though she did get superpowers and turn into Wonder Etta via an ectoplasmic extractor. The Cheetah was less recognizable, however. Kristen Wiig is set to play Barbara Minerva, a mystically powered human/cheetah hybrid, but this era’s Cheetah was Deborah Domaine, just a villain in a costume with some sharp claws.
Chris Pine is back despite Steve’s death in the first movie, and comic book Steve was in a similar spot in 1984. He died in 1969, was resurrected a few years later, died again a few years after that, and was finally replaced by a Steve from an alternate universe. He’d just absorbed the deceased Steve’s memories as Wonder Woman #323 began, leaving him discombobulated for the outing.
(There was another Steve in the mix, too. The ectoplasmic extractor turned Dr. Psycho into Captain Wonder, with the powers of Wonder Woman but the appearance of Steve. It was… weird.)
Wonder Woman was also out of sorts. The 1980s had been a lot for her thus far. She began the decade as Diana Prince, UN translator, but Steve’s second death left her reeling. She quit her job and superheroism all together to return to Paradise Island, and was so distraught that Queen Hippolyta removed all of her memories of Steve to give her some peace. Then, alternate universe Steve crash landed on Paradise Island and Diana took him to America, returning as Wonder Woman and landing an Air Force job for her secret identity.
But things weren’t quite right. “Wonder Woman” was in love with Steve, while “Diana” flirted with a different co-worker, and she couldn’t reconcile the two sides of her personality. Things became so extreme that she faked her secret identity’s death when Steve proposed to Wonder Woman in the book’s landmark 300th issue, only to bring her back when Steve broke off the engagement because Diana’s “death” left him so shaken. Hippolyta returned her memories in hopes of sorting her out, and she remained angry and confused by the new information as Wonder Woman #323 began.
Basically, to understand Wonder Woman in this issue, you had to have a grasp on the 15 years of continuity that preceded it. Ditto for Steve. And a few years of knowledge would also help when it came to the Cheetah, Etta, and Dr. Psycho. The book was mired in complicated continuity that got increasingly convoluted the more they tried to address it. It made for a perplexing read that would be nigh incomprehensible to newcomers and challenging even for regular readers.
This might explain why there weren’t many people buying the book. Sales were so bad that Wonder Woman #323 didn’t make it onto the Top 100 comic sales chart. Neither did the issue previous, or the issue after. DC had shifted the series from monthly to bi-monthly because of the low sales, and Wonder Woman #323 was the first issue on this new schedule.
Editor Alan Gold lamented, “The sad fact remains, however, that the growth of interest in Wonder Woman indicated by a steady increase of mail isn’t reflected by rising sales figures,” and implored fans, “If you know comics fans who haven’t read Wonder Woman in years and are pretty darn smug about it, too, why not convince them to take another look at the Amazing Amazon?”
The fact was, Wonder Woman wasn’t a priority at DC Comics. No one was keen to work on the series. It was a job that was assigned, not asked for, and DC kept Wonder Woman in print partly because they’d lose the rights to the character if they didn’t. The men writing, drawing, and editing the book weren’t particularly excited to work on it — and it was all men. Women often colored the books, and writer Mindy Newell stepped in to pen a brief 1985 run before the series wrapped, but men crafted the stories at all other levels.
The end was nigh. Wonder Woman #323 also featured the Monitor and his assistant Lyla, aka Harbinger. They were there to tease Crisis on Infinite Earths, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s maxi-series that reset continuity for the entire DC universe. Wonder Woman ended six issues later with Wonder Woman marrying Steve Trevor, but she didn’t survive the Crisis. In the final issue, the Anti-Monitor blasted Wonder Woman with a death beam, sending her back through time as she returned to the clay from which she was originally created, seemingly setting the stage for a full reboot.
Instead of a reboot, there was only limbo. DC kept Wonder Woman in print in 1986 with The Legend of Wonder Woman, a four-issue Golden Age romp from Kurt Busiek and Trina Robbins, but their plans to relaunch the series had stalled. Pitches were few, and almost uniformly poor. One creator tentatively attached to the relaunch was notorious for his hyper-sexualized artwork, and every female employee in the DC office was appalled at the direction the series was heading. The new Wonder Woman was poised to be a disaster until artist and writer George Pérez stepped in.
Fresh off Crisis on Infinite Earths and his legendary run on New Teen Titans, Pérez was looking for a new project. He was disappointed by the plans for Wonder Woman, and later recalled, “The inner feminist in me […] was really bothered that she was just kind of being thrown out.” So he offered to take over the series, and worked with writer Greg Potter to reorient Wonder Woman around Ancient Greek mythology and a concept of female power that was true to the character’s feminist roots.
Pérez’s Wonder Woman #1 arrived in late 1986, and it was an instant critical and commercial hit. Sales reached levels the previous series hadn’t achieved in decades as new readers flocked to the book and Wonder Woman battled new and reimagined villains alike — Ares, Barbara Minerva’s Cheetah, and more. A letter in an early issue aptly noted, “The thing that struck me the most was the passion you put into this book, something that this series has lacked for a long time.”
Pérez stayed with Wonder Woman for the next five years, and while he was the mastermind of the series, he also brought in several female collaborators — including co-writer Mindy Newell, artists Colleen Doran, Cynthia Martin, and Jill Thompson, and colorists Nansi Hoolahan and Tatjana Wood.
Wonder Woman #323 and the convoluted chaos of 1984 are largely forgotten, in part because Pérez’s revamp so effectively set a new standard for Wonder Woman. That standard remains hugely influential today. Patty Jenkins cited his run alongside the original 1940s comics as chief inspirations for her films, and she’s already utilized his chief villains — Ares and Cheetah — in both of them. Her passion for the character also echoes Pérez, and stands as a testament to the heights that can be achieved when a great character is treated with respect and enthusiasm.