In the aftermath of a fiery apocalypse, humanity clings to life with little hope of a future. And into this world awakens Diana of Themyscira. But what can Diana save when so little of the world she loves remains? And what will become of Wonder Woman when she learns the truth of what happened centuries ago?
Daniel Warren Johnson’s 4-issue miniseries “Wonder Woman: Dead Earth” was published in 2020 under DC Comics’ Black Label imprint and follows Princess Diana, who has suddenly woken up in a post-apocalyptic earth. The causes of Earth’s destruction are vague, but centuries earlier the planet was scorched and now a small band of survivors fights to stay alive in a barren wasteland overrun by grotesque monsters known as the haedra. The fight to save what’s left of humankind will reveal what caused this apocalypse and challenge Wonder Woman’s values of love and compassion in a brutal, hopeless world.
“Wonder Woman: Dead Earth” is a hire wire act of tone and thematics – a brutal and bloody post-apocalyptic survival story that slams headfirst into a superhero tale that embraces the core truths of its lead hero. And the power of this story is that Johnson is able to keep both of these tenets in balance with one another. “Dead Earth” is grim. It’s exciting. It’s frightening. And it’s inspiring through its use of compassionate brutality.
Here, we’ll examine the Mad Max meets Greek myth future created by Johnson, the heavy metal action art that brings this story to life, and how this shocking apocalypse emphasizes what makes Wonder Woman an inspiring hero, no matter how dark the world becomes.
Spoilers ahead for this recent DC Comics miniseries.
The World Falls
“Dead Earth” opens with a small group of survivors led by a young woman named Dee as they scavenge for food, only to be attacked by a haedra and stumble upon the cryogenic pod of Wonder Woman. What happened to Diana? What led to the death of the Earth and all its heroes? As Diana searches for answers, she quickly liberates the survivors under the control of the ruler Theyden and sets off to bring the remains of humanity to her home island of Themyscira. But the answers waiting for her there will force her to reckon with her own forgotten role in the apocalypse.
DC Comics has played around with the idea of apocalyptic futures for years, often through its Elseworlds publishing line or various time travel stories that place our heroes into worst case scenarios. So it’s nothing new to place a longstanding hero in the wreckage of everything they fought to protect.
But the idea remains compelling, even when it’s been done so many times. The dynamic of having iconic beacons of hope surrounded by worldwide failure is an easy way to test the mettle of these characters. Sometimes, writers choose to sacrifice their hero’s core beliefs in service to a dark, cautionary tale. Other times, these become stories of redemption, pulling back the world from the brink of destruction and affirming the aspirational ideas that birthed these heroes in the first place. And what makes “Wonder Woman: Dead Earth” striking is its ability to stay in the grey area between these two approaches.
The world of “Dead Earth” is a more extreme, mystically-infused take on a global apocalypse, with the world destroyed through war and something called “The Great Fire.” And while humanity’s violence is the cause of Earth’s sudden destruction, Johnson also has human-created environmental catastrophe play a role in our doom. The earth is fragile and humankind’s destructive nature, on both a short-term and long-term scale, has consequences. The world that limps on in the aftermath is a sort of feudal nightmare, with few holding power and the rest in service to the whims of brutal men.
That plays as a perfect setting for Wonder Woman, who has always blended Greek myth with superheroics. Diana is a warrior, willing to use violence and even kill in the name of the greater good and it’s that dynamic that makes her totally unique from Superman and Batman. Diana will take a life if absolutely necessary, but she also values every life. And because Diana is an ambassador of the mythical island of Themyscira, but has also left her home to protect humankind, she exists within multiple tensions. These make Wonder Woman a challenging character to write, but are also the cause of her best stories. And Johnson uses these contrasts within “Dead Earth,” as well.
The seemingly inevitable destruction of the Earth is contrasted with Diana’s immortality, and Wonder Woman’s love of Earth and its fragile, self-destructive nature are in play with one another through “Dead Earth.” Really, this is a story of learning to love the world again when everything you love has been stripped away and how we choose to treat one another when nothing is left.
“One of the things I like about writing Diana is her willingness to put herself on the line,” said Johnson. “She has this loving character about her, which you don’t really see in Superman or Batman. Wonder Woman is not afraid to say ‘I love you.’”
Diana’s relationship with Dee is the core of “Dead Earth,” which exemplifies the innate compassion of our hero that propels her tenacious fight for a better world. Even when Dee initially betrays her and imprisons her, Diana expresses a compassion for her that’s an extension of her love for the world.
Now in the post-apocalypse, Diana is weaker than ever but still strong enough to fight the haedra threat. And in this bloody, bone-crunching, flesh-tearing battle for survival, we find Diana’s compassion lived out to its fullest.
Heavy Metal Action
As an illustrator, Daniel Warren Johnson’s art is instantly recognizable thanks to his extremely kinetic sense of action and scratchy characters. Everything is in constant motion and every character feels wounded and ragged, even when nothing has happened to them. In Johnson’s hands, each person is seen through a different lens of beauty that removes any sexualization and instead creates a vulnerable humanity.
Books like “Extremity” and especially “Murder Falcon” show Johnson’s love of heavy metal music and the genre’s influence on his own art, both through the subject matter of songs and the wild covers of so many albums. Johnson also clearly loves fantasy action, with most of his books dealing in swords, axes, bows, and magic.
In Johnson’s hands, action is all about speed and agility. To bring that sense of speed to life, the countless scratchy lines that make up character forms fly off them as movement distorts body proportions. Instead of remaining in a static form that would come with a realism approach, the lines elongate and rip apart for a more brutal, physically impactful manner of violence. And this distortion applies to his use of sound effects, as well, which are rendered in a sketchy manner that makes them feel like an organic production of the action happening on the page. Johnson combines these with his sense of motion to fill the pages with streaking, screaming slices, punches, and kicks that don’t flow through the panel, but instead slice it to ribbons.
The action here is consistently intense, filled with severed limbs, ripped throats, and lopped heads (you know I love a good head lop), but it makes you cheer even as you’re struck by the brutality.
Colorist Mike Spicer, frequent collaborator with Johnson, brings a vibrant color palette to the apocalyptic earth. The haedra are all manner of otherworldly reds, greens, and purples and everything from glowing-orange battles to the icy desolation of the Fortress of Solitude are given a boldness that suits Johnson’s kinetic work. And the ragged, worn out nature of the world is also translated through Russ Wooton’s lettering, showcasing all the desperation, woundedness, and rage of the characters here.
Because of Black Label’s extra-wide pages and larger per-issue page count, these images are given more time to breathe and let the creative team explore the world they’ve created. Of course, no mention of Black Label can go without discussing that what was once meant to be an adult-oriented line of outside continuity stories to replace Vertigo has seemingly lost most direction due to DC Comics’ continual editorial shakeups and has become a sticker to slap on old prestige comics. (A sudden dilution of branding and line-wide direction at DC? No way!) But “Dead Earth” is a perfect example of the freedom that was supposed to be encouraged by this line.
As for the characters themselves, Johnson prefers people in some form of ragged disrepair and chooses stories to suit the aesthetic. The desperate war of Extremity, the low-fi metal adventure of Murder Falcon, and this feudal post-apocalypse all lack glamor and traditional beauty. Instead, his figures are often very limby, gangly, scraggly creations and the traditionally hyper-muscular nature of superheroes are reserved for only the most exaggerated creatures. When you look at Diana, you see power through her motion and the sheer destruction created by her attacks instead of through overly-rendered body proportions. And in “Dead Earth,” the heroine is almost constantly covered in dirt, scratches, matted hair, and tattered clothes that illustrate her warrior nature.
There’s also a sense of androgyny here, with men and women having fewer distinguishing features, especially when bruised and bloodied in battle. Wonder Woman herself is never sexualized but still remains feminine. And Dee also benefits from Johnson’s androgynous approach, as she’s clearly designed to echo Steve Trevor. And just as Steve was the first human to make Diana fall in love with humanity, Dee is the one to reignite that love after the world has ended. Diana’s ability to be used as a metaphor for all types of both platonic and romantic love can be traced back to her origins and why she’s remained a feminist icon for nearly a century.
Because the most important, lasting relationships in Diana’s history are with women. And because this is a story about love, trust, and the bonds forged and broken between women. What that means to Dee, Diana, Barbara, and more is what drives this story forward, creating its most beautiful and tragic moments.
The Passion of Wonder Woman
Who is Wonder Woman in a world that continues to live out the exact reasons why the Amazons separated themselves?
That’s not just a question posed in “Dead Earth” but a question that every writer has to grapple with when writing Wonder Woman. And it’s possibly why DC Comics has had such a difficult time finding consistent success with the character. There have been plenty of great Wonder Woman runs over the years, but the Amazon’s comics are inconsistent and constantly reworking Diana’s origins and mission to the world.
Diana has had many different origins over the years, but Johnson chooses to use the story that Wonder Woman was shaped out of clay by her mother while adding a new layer – that her mother stole blood from all the gods and mixed it with the clay to give her daughter unimaginable power. And it’s clear that Hippolyta made her daughter like this to be strong enough to never be harmed by the world. Yet Johnson uses this origin to add a layer of strength and tragedy to Diana that her mother could never anticipate.
Because Diana is made from the earth, she is forever linked to the world, even when it’s rejected by Hippolyta. And in being given incredible power, she is strong enough to make that world fragile.
Johnson places Wonder Woman in the worst possible future to test the character’s beliefs. And the most shocking reveal comes in Diana regaining her memories and remembering how the world fell. Humanity’s continued environmental destruction caused the Amazons to go to war with the world, sparking global conflict and a nuclear attack that transformed the Amazons into the vicious haedra now trying to kill the remnants of humankind. But worst of all, it was Diana’s brutal fight with Superman, the result of Wonder Woman removing the gauntlets that held back much of her incredible power, that destroyed the world, igniting the air and exploding the earth with the sheer power of their battle.
Now it’s not only humanity that Diana must question her trust in, but herself – who has become the cause of her own worst nightmare.
The four main women of “Dead Earth” have each been deeply wounded by the world and each must decide how to live their lives in the aftermath. Dee was abused by the survivor camp she lives in. Barbara was experimented on and made more monstrous by survivors. Diana lost everything when Themiscyra was attacked. And Hippolyta was abused by the gods, which turned her against the world, and then mutated by mankind, which turned her monstrous. Each of these women mean something to one another and change each other through their relationships.
Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, along with his polyamorous wife Elizabeth Marston and partner Olive Byrne, designed Themiscyra to be a female utopia that thrives free from the influence of man’s world. And while the island’s relationship to the world has changed over the years, “Dead Earth” explores that relationship as a cycle of abuse.
And now not only has Hippolyta’s desires for her child brought the apocalypse, but Diana is now able to be hurt by that same world. It’s the fears that every parent feels for their child. That something will go wrong. That the world will hurt their child like it hurt them. That they will be the cause of pain for their children in ways they never wanted.
There’s a kind of innate trust created by a mother and her child at birth. The lifegiver and the fragile life that depends on her. And there’s a trust that an innocent child places in the world before they know how deeply they can be hurt by it.
“Dead Earth” is human emotions and global fears rendered on an extreme scale. This has all been the story of what it means when you realize how terrible the world can be and your own capacity for destruction and how you decide to move on from that.
In “Dead Earth’s” climax, Dee must choose if she should trust the woman who caused so much of this suffering and Diana must choose whether she should let the Amazons wipe out the rest of humanity to prevent another apocalypse from ever happening again, or find compassion for people that have the same destructive capacity that she does.
And it’s Diana of Themiscyra’s compassionate brutality that saves while it destroys. That fights for what we love. That sacrifices ourselves for something bigger than we could ever be. That doesn’t fear destroying what remains in hopes of building something better in its place.
In the end, there’s very little we have in this world that is truly permanent. Not our family, not our possessions, not our minds, not even the ground we stand on. And in the face of inevitable loss, we can either choose to destroy what we hate, or embrace a radical compassion for each other. One will lead us to lose what we have even faster, but the other may give the world a chance for something better.
If we will inevitably lose everything, what will we do with the time we have? Will you reach out to others? Will you fight for what’s good in the world?